Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

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A lot of people who are WoW curmudgeons will tell you the older version the better. Their reasoning pretty much boils down to the fact that WoW has gotten progressively easier and they feel that unskilled players have ruined the game. While I can definitely understand that point of view, my reasons for missing the original World of Warcraft are a little more nuanced than that.

My wife and I are avid players of whatever 1.12.1 private server we can find that is stable and remains in operation. Gaming media seems to think for some reason that Nostalrius was one of very few Vanilla WoW servers, but there are actually hundreds. Most of them are just run on someone’s home server and barely meet the definition of playable. As someone who started playing right before TBC was released, I remember how the game played and want something at least close to that experience. Fortunately there are always at least a few 1.12.1 servers in operation that meet my standards.

If you consider private servers piracy, I can live with that. If Blizzard would make this content available in any way, I would gladly pay for it. You see, when Cataclysm was released in 2010, the entire original map was remade. Besides a few time-travel instances, there is no way to access any of this content anymore. So it isn’t just a few old players wanting to go back to older versions of spells and talents, we actually can’t even play the quests anymore that we fondly remember. So that is why I have been begging Blizzard to re-release this content (preferably for a one time charge, with no monthly fee) on any platform. This article is about some of the reasons that even people new to it would love a chance to play Vanilla WoW.

 

Story and Lore, front and center.

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If you have only been playing WoW in recent years, it may be hard to believe that there was a time when it had really interesting original lore. Recent versions have pretty much filled every quest and dialogue with pop culture references and clear nods to movies and television. While there is still definitely a central plot, it doesn’t really concern itself with adhering to any central lore. The WoW universe has become like the Marvel and DC universes, where killing characters and bringing them back to life can be done for convenience.

The Warcraft universe has always taken some inspiration from other series, most notably Warhammer and Lord of the Rings. At its core though, it has always had an original universe filled with different history and factions. It used to be important to know who these people were and what they were doing. If you were a dwarf, the feud with the Dark Iron dwarves was part of your history. Players would recognize factions like the Argent Dawn and the Steamwheedle Cartel that were featured in the plot of previous Warcraft games. You could even decide for yourself how to interact with neutral factions. If you decided that you hated pirates, you could go into your character panel and mark all neutral pirate factions as hostile, so your character would attack them on sight. In modern WoW all of this has become completely irrelevant.

The thing I really miss about Vanilla WoW, was how each race and quest had a plotline that really made you feel that role. Your starting areas would establish your culture, often creating traits that permanently molded your character and how you play them. As you progressed from 1-60, your class quests were also much more intense and personal. While the class quests of today are basically glorified tutorials for the new abilities you get, old class quests really tested your dedication to your role. You were expected to do things like infiltrate higher level areas, using your class skills to avoid certain death. The rewards were actually relevant too, because dungeons were much harder to farm for better loot.

Even some of the things people complained the most about, like globe-trotting quests and quests that required huge spending of gold, often fit in with the plot and made sense. As a servant of your chosen order, it makes sense that your boss would send you with an important message to Theramore, even though you are questing in Stranglethorn Vale. It also helped you discover flight paths and other dungeons, since you were not automatically given the former and there was no Dungeon Finder. Besides word of mouth, these random annoying quests were often the way you discovered new parts of the game.

Overall it just felt more like a real, living world. The reason it was so easy for so many of us to get lost in the World of Warcraft, was because it was such a compelling and deep universe to immerse in. The farmers and their never-ending need for bear asses were still annoying, but the game did a better job of making them seem like people who mattered. I remember fondly the first time I completed the level 12 paladin quest line. One of the steps required you to give a bunch of cloth to the guy walking around begging for cloth for the orphans. He tells you this should be enough to last them all year, but since the game had no instancing then, he goes right back to begging for cloth right after. So we decided he was a scammer and spent the next 10 minutes following him around Ironforge and warning people not to get scammed. It was pure RP gold.

 

Classes felt unique.

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World of Warcraft has really become a disgustingly simple game at the basic level. I’m not mocking the skill of high ranking players, the toughest content is still a challenge. But in the most basic sense, WoW classes have been reduced to different flavors of the roles Healer, Damage and Tank. While other MMORPGs like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV have fully developed support and crowd-control classes, in WoW these are just secondary functions that most classes can choose to help with. It doesn’t really matter that much if you are a Druid tank or a Warrior tank, as long as you can hold enough threat.

It used to be very, very different. It’s not even just combat balancing either. Classes used to be balanced across the entire game, but not in each aspect. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in some ways and that’s why it isn’t like that anymore. Basically, it’s easiest to explain like this: A mage was undeniably better in PvP than a Warlock, but a Warlock got a free mount at level 40. Since mounts cost 80g, which was almost inconceivable back then, this was an enormous bonus. So yes, the Mage could annihilate the Warlock in a duel, but the Warlock was already galloping from dungeon to dungeon, while the Mage was grinding gold to purchase a mount. It was the same with Warriors vs. Paladins. Other classes were balanced in ways like Priests were by far the best healers, but Paladins and Druids could also tank if needed.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that being able to create a portal was once a skill that would make you rich. Before flying mounts, long range travel was a humongous pain in the ass. I could go on and on. There was just this strange sort of balance across all parts of the game, that really required you to get to know a competent player of each class.

 

Crafting and Professions were actually fun.

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These days it’s difficult to understand why crafting even exists in WoW, besides achievements. It has become little more than a boring chore to attend to between expansions, when you have absolutely nothing better to do. Blizzard has even so much as admitted this with recent expansions, by allowing you to craft plot-based weapons that are totally separate from and superior to traditional crafted gear. This all started when level progression got faster and faster. Crafting has been streamlined somewhat to keep up, but it’s like a turtle and hare race. You will blast up to whatever the current level cap is long before you can craft anything useful, then spend hours in low-level zones catching up your crafting to eventually make things that are moderately useful in endgame content (mostly consumables).

Would you believe me if I told you there was a time when even fishing was fun? There are a lot of changes in gameplay that have slowly made professions the awful tedium they are today. The faster progression is the biggest, but not the only one. There is also the fact that before Dungeon Finder, everyone wasn’t farming every instance for the very best gear. These days every single level 40 player is walking around with the best complete set for their class. In the old days, those random green items you would get from your professions would actually be useful. Not only that, the stuff you were crafting was actually useful, because your gear wasn’t already OP. The party leatherworker unlocking the next level of armor kit could literally be the difference that allowed you to complete a dungeon.

It’s really hard to even explain all the ways that WoW has gotten easier and made professions obsolete. Getting adequate bag space used to cost a fortune, so knowing a tailor was almost necessary. Basic potions were essential, even at low levels. There were also far fewer consumables in the game, so things like bandages and the many gimmicks made by engineers, were really useful items to have. This is another area where I could just go on and on. There are so many items and practices that are just made completely pointless in modern WoW and many of them relate to crafting.

 

Now I want to touch on a few things that are both good and bad. Most of these are things we remember fondly, but have been changed for obvious reasons as games have evolved. There are some things that people just plain will not tolerate, because standards have changed.

 

World PvP

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In Vanilla WoW, there were only what are known today as PvP servers. While in modern WoW, this mostly marks a server where players are focused on competition, it also means that players of opposite factions can fight in contested areas. In Vanilla WoW, this was the only way to play and there were a lot more contested areas. Basically anywhere outside of your starting area, it was open season for the Alliance and Horde to go at it. This was parodied famously in the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”. That episode may not make a lot of sense to people anymore, as nobody has participated in much world PvP in years. It’s honestly just more fun to do it in many battlegrounds WoW has made available, with their various level ranges. Just the effort to get enough people in one (non-instanced) place to have any lengthy combat is almost prohibitive today.

There are a lot of good reasons for this. While it’s fun to remember those massive battles we had in The Barrens and the Hillsbrad Foothills, that was like 2% of the time. What constant PvP mostly involved, was higher level players of the enemy faction camping in questing zones and griefing people for hours on end. It was super annoying and caused many a keyboard to be broken and account to be cancelled. So these days, anyone who wants to enjoy the quests and content should just go to a PvE or RP server and avoid this entirely.

In order to bring old players back and introduce new ones, something would have to be done about this. I think it’s essential to bring that conflict back for a successful Vanilla revival, but it would have to eliminate the griefing issue. The best methods I can think of is by making battles timed events, like Battlegrounds, to draw players in to compete at certain times. The other would be to just make certain zones contested only at certain times. Say for example you could have contested zones become PvP during peak hours on a server. So if you are questing in one of these zones and it hits about 7-10pm local time, you know it’s time to evacuate if you don’t want to fight.

 

Some Classes Sucked

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What I said up above about class skills balancing out combat effectiveness is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s also the part where you go into a dungeon and all of that is useless. If you are playing a Warlock or a Paladin, it’s easy to look around at the other classes and their abilities and just think “F**k, why do I even exist?”. That was just the reality back then. For Warlocks especially, you were pretty much the black sheep of the whole community. Nobody wanted you in a party if one of the many other classes who could do everything better than you were around. Sure, they would take you if there wasn’t already a rogue and a mage, but you would never be selected over another class unless you were an absolutely godlike player.

Now that is a really sh*tty feeling.

I think for the most part, the class balance by patch 1.12 was decent, but there are a few changes that really should be made. Warlocks should be slightly better in general and Paladins should be able to excel in a role as long as they specialize. There is a reason that Paladins are now focused by moving the best bonuses way down each talent tree. The first solution Blizzard tried during WotLK was to just make them better, which lead to broken tanks that could also cast Lay on Hands every 20 seconds. It was really great after sucking for so long, but I admit it was a terrible solution. You could just have a party of 3 Paladins, that could steamroll anything intended for a party of 5. For Warlocks though, it worked very well, because they just got screwed on everything besides the mount.

 

The Graphics need the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect.

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There is a practice in re-releases and remakes that I like to call the “Rose Tinted Shades” effect, after the similar term in psychology. Basically this means you shine up the graphics enough to not be an eyesore, while still preserving the look of the original. Nintendo did probably the best example of this with Wind Waker HD. The game looks exactly the way you remember it, without the crappy tube tv effects it actually had back then.

It would be pretty easy to put in things like better looking water and shadows, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Really all Vanilla WoW needs to be functional on modern hardware is an HD facelift. To my mind that would mostly have to do with draw distances and textures. On modern higher resolution monitors, it’s easier to make out just how awful the terrain in the distance looks. It’s also quite noticeable when NPCs pop into view. Just a few little tweaks (much like what can be achieved with console commands already) could make it very playable, even by modern standards. Similarly it would be very easy to upscale the menus and UI a bit.

 

Make Meeting Stones Matter

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You may have noticed those funny looking obelisks with Hearthstone emblems on them near Dungeons. Those actually used to do something. You see, before Dungeon Finder, someone would trek out to the Dungeon (often in hostile territory) and put out the call for their friends to join them. It was a pretty crude system, but it lead to many fun and frustrating moments. Obviously there were too many of the latter and that’s why we don’t use them anymore. I’m not saying I have the solution, but something would need to be tweaked.

I would be strongly against just adding Dungeon Finder. I think that was probably the biggest thing that changed how it feels to play WoW. There must be baby steps we could take in between though. Like maybe making it possible to create portals to meeting stones with a consumable item or something like that. If players didn’t have to spend up to an hour and risk death to get a party together, it would make the experience much more approachable. Not saying I don’t miss some of those random conflicts around Deadmines and Wailing Caverns, but it was definitely something best left in the past.

 

I just want to wrap up me love letter to classic WoW by saying it is just plain stupid not to make money on this content. Almost every other game Blizzard has made is available for sale in some shape or form, yet there is no way to play a version of WoW that is only 13 years old (well besides private servers of course). Sure, I can see that you would not want to cannibalize sales of modern WoW, but that’s not very realistic. Nobody is going to only play the tiny bit of content in Vanilla vs. the giant buffet that is modern WoW. Realistically it should have no monthly cost or be included with a retail WoW subscription. I would totally see it as an experience like Diablo being patched to run on modern systems. You may crack out on it for a while, but you aren’t going to stop playing newer games.

Realistically, Vanilla Wow could run on mobile platforms, but it would still require a keyboard. Most tablets can be equipped with one though, so I don’t really see this as a significant barrier. In an ideal world, it would work similar to Gameloft’s very WoW-like Order and Chaos, where you can play it on both PC and mobile, preferably on the same servers.

I’m not really expecting Blizzard to read these posts, but if you read them and also want to play Vanilla WoW again, spread the idea!

VAGUE SPOILERS AHEAD FOR PREY, BIOSHOCK SERIES AND SYSTEM SHOCK SERIES.

It’s hard sometimes to go back and remember what it felt like when you were first playing a game you loved. The memories tend to grow on us and also subsequent playthroughs and press coverage change the way we view the game later. I can however, remember almost exactly what it felt like to experience the major plot twist in each Shock game. Whether it was revelations about Shodan in the original series, or the secret of “would you kindly?” in the Bioshock series inspired by System Shock, they always leave an impression.

So anyone going into the very Shock-like Prey would expect a major twister in there somewhere. The game does not disappoint, well actually it does. Prey completely drops the ball on timing, if not content of the major plot twist. I’ll get back to this later, but first I want to explain how important the timing has been for each past game. If you think back to the final act of each Shock game, then remove the story parts, you will probably realize something: on the surface they’re kind of weak. It’s really hard to come up with good challenges for the player once they have all the best upgrades. So the final acts of these games often just involve throwing lots of the toughest enemies at you, in difficult situations. Since you are just trying to chase the plot at this point, it totally works. Then at just about the point where you would get sick of it, some amazing revelation happens, followed by some mind-blowing cutscenes.

This is pretty much the final act of every game ever ending with Shock, as well as the similar Deus Ex series. We expect it at this point. I guess Prey does not end with Shock or Ex, so maybe it’s just me that feels it carries this heritage. Regardless, Prey totally botches its late-game reveals. The plot twists taking place at the end are really predictable and accompanied by some awful room-clearing segments that feel straight out of Aliens: Colonial Marines (no, that is not too harsh). The boring, kill waves of enemies gameplay is actually not that different from the end of the previously mentioned games. It’s just that what is happening to drive you forward is nowhere near as interesting.

And then, after you have spent 10 minutes watching the credits and debating with yourself if you just wasted your time, the post-credits scene has a totally awesome plot twist. Like, after many people probably pulled the disc out and returned it to the store. As cool as it was when it finally happened, that is almost tragically bad placement. Making me play through a nearly worthless 2 hours at the end that almost made me hate a game I was loving, then finally, if I watch the credits, blowing my mind. Makes no sense at all to me.

I often wonder what games looked like in the minds of their creators, at various stages of development. I wonder how many huge cuts and changes completely altered the final experience. Prey made me wonder this intensely. In the end, the alarming and exciting twist came too late to save my experience of the game. I would have almost preferred to have a shorter game that didn’t include the extra tedium.

Regardless of how it happened, the timing of the major plot twist made all the difference in my gaming experience. It took Prey from what I would have called the next Shock game, to something I will probably move on from quickly.

Hellpoint: there is life after Dark Souls

Posted: April 25, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features

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For many of us, the conclusion of the Dark Souls series left us, for lack of a less punny term, feeling a bit hollow.  Personally I would search constantly for new games that would scratch that itch for a complex, difficult, dark and cryptic game.  Every time I would end up disappointed, finding nothing but games that took all the most basic aspects of From’s seminal series, but none of the genius.

Then, last Sunday afternoon, I discovered the answer to my muttered prayers to dark deities: Hellpoint.

The thing that sets Hellpoint apart from the many pretenders to the abandoned throne, is its dark and mysterious tone and lore.  I don’t want to imply it’s just a ripoff of the approach taken by From either.  CradleGames had developed their own dark mythology, with complementary gameplay systems to match.  Hellpoint has a new and unique approach to spooky NPCs, creepy locations and obscure lore.  What’s more, it doesn’t steal Dark Souls’ gimmicks, just its basic gameplay style.  The Quantic System used to determine timed game events and enemy behavior is similar to, but completely more interesting than Demon’s Souls’ soul attribute system.  It has the potential to suddenly unbalance gameplay, but not in a poorly designed way like Breath of the Wild’s blood moons that broke the game at launch.

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The most important thing that Hellpoint nails absolutely perfectly, is the give and take of Souls combat.  I think most of us can agree that other Souls pretenders, like Lords of the Fallen, fail at that absolutely essential thing.  Hellpoint pulls it off effortlessly, even in the current pre-alpha state.  Combat has that same frenzied, give and take feel that is not unlike real fencing.  Although the gameplay is not an exact copy (and features a dedicated jump button!), I felt immediately at home.

While the currently available demo is in a very early state, I honestly had more fun playing it than all of the From Software betas I have participated in.  One of the biggest reasons for that, I saved for halfway through the article to share.  This game has drop in couch co-op.  Yes, that thing that only Salt and Sanctuary has managed to bring to hungry fans.  You may have to steel yourself for the horrors of the singularity, but you don’t have to do it alone.  CradleGames even has all sorts of mischief in mind for PvE and PvP features that are inspired by, yet unique from what we are used to from Souls games.

The final main thing that Hellpoint does that others don’t, is creep you out with quality dark art design.  Everything in the game looks like something that crawled out of a Clive Barker movie or the equally evil black hole in Event Horizon.  It’s definitely reminiscent of what a mix between Dark Souls and Dead Space would look like, but still with a horror all its own.

Hellpoint is currently a little over halfway through their Kickstarter and a little more than halfway funded.  They already have a demo up, that has swallowed almost 20 hours of my life.  If you have a giant, black, Dark Souls sized hole in your heart, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Hellpoint Kickstarter:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hellpoint/hellpoint-a-dark-sci-fi-rpg/description

Hellpoint Steam Page:

http://store.steampowered.com/app/628670/

True Guru Tips for Buying Computers and Parts

Posted: January 31, 2017 by ryanlecocq in Features, Off-topic, Technology

There are many articles that discuss commonly held wisdom about buying and selling electronics.  I have written several myself.  This is going beyond that to the realm of instinct and “kicking the tires” so to speak.  If you’ve read all the basic stuff about “do not buy below (A) graphics card for gaming at (X) resolution” and all that, this is the guide for you.

 

Read, read and re-read the full listing before buying.

I know this doesn’t seem like an advanced tip at all, but I want you to really let it sink in.  Even I have allowed myself to be duped by an incorrect listing and then been tempted to be that asshole complaining about it in the reviews.  Trust your common sense madam or sir, you know there is no such thing as a GTX 960 with 2048 shader cores.  Do not let your greed to find some impossible deal trick you.  Because you will have just fooled yourself.  You have done the basic research, you knew better, you just hoped against hope you could game the system.

Now this totally goes both ways.  There are totally such things as “unicorn parts” and if you think you have found one, try to verify by part number or reviews and BUY IMMEDIATELY.  Allow me to give a couple of examples I have bought.

The first was a Geforce GTX 460 that was some sort of odd developer edition.  It was overspecced over OEM in every way (more cores, faster speeds etc) and yet it had only one 6-pin PCIe requirement.  If you are familiar with the Fermi series cards you know this is effing nonsense.  Yet it was, and the results are still on some forum somewhere as the internet went from suspicion to awe as I was like “wtf is this thing!?”  It completely outperformed everything in range at significantly lower wattage.  No idea where it came from, but so glad that some e-recycler got ahold of it somehow and put it on eBay.

The second was a completely unlocked Haswell revision b CPU for testing.  It said right on the die cap that this was absolutely not to ever leave the Intel factory.  Some enterprising gentleperson in China went through some epic adventure to get it out, as evidenced by the battle damage on the cap.  It still booted just fine though and I gave them terrific feedback.  This is one of the chips they use to test what the released ones will be set at.  Every single setting of the CPU is unlocked, because the techs at Intel need to be able to toggle every switch for testing.  With the right custom bios, you can turn on and off some very interesting features on these.  You can also overclock the hell out of it on good cooling, which is all I cared about.  I guess I shouldn’t recommend that you try to get one of these, because Intel would probably have me killed if I still had it in my possession writing this.  But if you, wink wink, nudge nudge happened to find one, it was like eating gelato in a computer part.

 

Sometimes refurbished is good!

I frequently say the biggest problem with computers now is they aren’t made with love, by human hands.  That sounds corny, but it’s as simple as the guy in the factory pulls a big level that dunks the heatsink in thermal paste and slams it on a laptop logic board.  That is no way to apply paste, plain and simple.  Many of the problems that cause all of those angry reviews come from the simple byproducts of automation.  It makes total sense, they can sell it much cheaper and when you return it, they just have a tech open it up and fix a simple problem and it never happens again.  They can just re-sell it for a little less as refurbished and it’s usually only a small percentage that actually have issues.

Let’s rewind a couple sentences: “…and it never happens again.”  This is the part that’s important.  When you buy a device that has been properly refurbished, you are getting a device that has been opened up by a person more qualified than anyone involved in manufacturing it.  They have actually touched it with their gloved hands and even the laziest tech will usually blow out plastic shavings and do other basic fixes, without even mentioning it.  This means that you have a device that is actually less likely to ever fail again than the other units that didn’t fail.  The other units could still have a wire that is too close to something, it just didn’t fail within warranty.

This goes very counter to common thought, that if there are a lot of refurbished models available, it must be garbage.  That really isn’t true anymore.  Most problems with electronic devices these days are caused by minor things that can be easily fixed.  Oftentimes manufacturers will even go to the effort of refurbishing (though not actually having to fix anything) units that have been returned for any reason.  It’s pretty rational really, you say you just returned it because you didn’t like it, but maybe you just cleaned up the cat vomit really, really well.  Might as well have a tech open it up just to be safe, don’t want to be that really, really horrifying Amazon review.  This goes like any of these, just do your research and read as many reviews of the refurbisher as possible.

 

Never trust reviews by people who sound like jerks.

Unreasonable people generally behave unreasonably.  That’s not some deep wisdom, it’s just the obvious.  The people who have emotional outbursts about a Chromebook not having a DVD drive, are usually the kind of people that put diesel in their gas car and blame the gas station.  You have nothing useful to learn from these people in this situation.  Focus on the reviews that calmly and rationally cover the pros and cons of the device at hand.  They are unfortunately few and far between sometimes, but keep looking and you should find a few.

On the flipside of this, if you are reviewing something, try to be rational.  Your personal emotions about the situation are irrelevant to anyone but you.  What matters is how long you used the thing and how it functioned during that time.  The purpose of reviews is to inform other potential buyers, not vent at the manufacturer.  At best the only company employee who will read it is an intern and you may get a canned response.

Also nobody cares how you feel about the brand in general.  This device was probably made in a different factory than the last device you bought by that manufacturer and the company has probably changed hands five times.  Brand loyalty or hate is the most irrelevant, stupid thing you could waste your time on when we are talking about the product itself.  I want to just hammer that home with the example of my wife’s 2014 Macbook Pro 15.  It’s the fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles.  Now you may have your gripes about Apple in general, but I’ve taken apart a lot of their devices and they are usually pretty good about engineering.  The late 14 MBP15 has the huge design flaw, in that it is incapable of using its own dedicated GPU by the laws of thermodynamics.  I kid you not, we’ve replaced the logic board twice, it’s just that simple.  You start using a 3D application, it overheats.  Every. Single. Time.  That is the sort of thing you should be specific about in a review.  It’s only the model with dGPU and it’s not nearly as common on other years.  People need to know that someone at Apple messed up on that model and that they should buy a different one.  Not that all Apple computers are bad, because the 2011 iMac 27″ is still trucking fantastically right next to it.  I’ve experienced the same with Asus, HP and Dell, brands I generally really approve of.  Every brand makes a few lemons, but there’s a reason that those companies are the big names; they generally make products people really like.

 

Be aware of what sacrifices are necessary.

Owning technology has laws, much like gravity and magnetism.  These laws are things like your technology will only be as good as you put time or money into it.  This is an absolute, unbreakable relationship that can only be cheated in one way, which I will mention later.  You either have to put time into researching and maintaining everything yourself, or you have to throw money at it.  You either have to know exactly what you can get away with cutting corners on, or you have to just buy the most expensive one and trust the warranty.  You cannot expect to just spend ten minutes browsing Amazon, order the first thing that looks too-good-to-be-true and hope it turns out well.  You will probably end up with a laptop with a keyboard in a language nobody speaks.

If you are an average consumer, your only hope to get a really good deal on current technology is to really read up on it and catch a good sale.  If something looks too cheap, it probably has some major flaw.  If something is much cheaper than others of the same thing, it is probably damaged in some way or being sold for parts.  It is possible to save money over just buying the first thing recommended to you, but it will take time and effort.  I know how it feels to get something super cheap on Amazon or eBay, but I also know how it feels to find out it’s the wrong thing and I only have myself to blame.  The important thing to keep in mind is that unless you are a master scammer, you are probably not going to game the system all that much without someone realizing it.  Don’t be too quick to think you’ve outsmarted people who have been separating people from money for a long time.

Finally, if you are not the average consumer, you may qualify for that method of cheating the system I mentioned above.  Guess what?  It also takes work.  If you become a top-tier tech, you will have the ability to make machines do things that the average user could only dream of.  As a general rule, any system I build beats official benchmarks of the same parts by 15% or more.  It’s not magic, I just do 100 things or more to optimize performance that take years of experience to learn.  So you are avoiding the work each time you buy something, by investing it up front with knowledge.  There is no easy path to this.  If you just try to copy what an expert does, you will have catastrophic failure like Mickey in Fantasia.  There is no way around learning the hard way when it comes to technology, but I highly recommend it.  If you are passionate about your technology, you truly cannot buy the peace of mind that comes from building and caring for your own devices.  You can also get a $500 computer to out-bench a $1000 computer if you know what you’re doing.

 

Never, ever feel rushed.  There is always another deal.

It’s easy to get caught up in sales and rebates on sites like Newegg and Amazon.  That’s the whole point.  They are trying to convince you that today’s deal is something special, when a simple graph of their prices would show that everything goes up and down constantly.  The other thing to be aware of is that new parts are releasing constantly.  This not only gives you more options, but also causes the previous parts to drop in value.  The older parts are still just as useful as they were before the new thing arrived, so it often saves you a lot to go with the previous model.

There is a flip side to this as well.  If you keep hesitating, waiting for the next deal or new product, you don’t have a system the entire time you wait.  People have a hard time understanding this, but the most cost-effective way to PC game is to build a new mid-range system every 6 months to a year.  If you build it yourself, it will be worth at least what it cost you 6 months later.  You just need to build it barely powerful enough to run current games well, knowing that you won’t have it in a year.  So the cycle pays for itself and you spend absolutely nothing but time and the effort of building a couple of PCs a year, which I find relaxing.

 

 

I think that about wraps up this edition in this long-running series.  I may think of a few tips to add later.

 

 

 

 

Final Fantasy XV First Impressions

Posted: December 1, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Reviews

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I don’t think I’ll do a full review, as I wasn’t able to get the game early.  I’m just going to try to hit the important points all in one place.

I won’t make you wait to find out if I like it or not.  I love this game so far.  I would say it lives up to my personal expectations and is more fun to play than any RPG since Xenoblade Chronicles.  The key points of a good FF game are all there, from fun battle system to stellar graphics and music.  I really like the more understated plot, but there’s a major issue with it I’ll go into a bit later.  I’m about 16 hours in and in Altissia, so I’m a good chunk in, but not nearly far enough to give any final impression.

 

Some Experience Required

This is the first Final Fantasy game where the additional media products are required, rather than not really necessary and enjoyable.  By comparison, several other FF games  (especially VII) have had movies or animated shorts associated with them.  These were sometimes decent, but in no way were required to enjoy the game.  If you do not watch Kingsglaive and Brotherhood, the first hours of FFXV will be marred by a feeling of confusion.  Most fans will have already watched Brotherhood online and forked out the extra cash for Kingsglaive either with a bundle or separately, but any “first timers” may find themselves a little in the dark.

It’s really debatable how much of a strategy vs blunder this is, as it may be the perfect level of story for mainstream gamers that just don’t care.  Many people may find that the unobtrusiveness of the plot was perfect.  For me personally, I found that by watching both before playing, I had a pretty good idea of who everyone was and what was happening.  So kind of a YMMV thing, but if you want to know some of the most important plot details, you are required to seek out additional products.

 

Pro in Perspective

Now that I finally have a game developed to take advantage of this new PS4 Pro, I can finally explore its benefits.  Final Fantasy XV has pretty good PS4 Pro support, though at the moment it’s marred by frame pacing issues on the high setting.  There are two modes, high and low.  The low appears to be the way the game runs on the regular PS4, while the high is rendered at 1800p with higher effects and up or downsampled to your monitor resolution.

I didn’t have an original PS4 on hand anymore to compare to or a means of benchmarking my consoles, but the low mode appears to run between 40-60 frames per second.  The high setting, regardless of your screen resolution, seems to sit at about 30 with really annoying stuttering.  It looks absolutely fantastic on high, with better lighting, textures and anti-aliasing, but the ugly stuttering makes it unplayable in my opinion at the moment.  Hopefully a patch will address this shortly.

The next issue I had was HDR.  My TV doesn’t support it and in my experience at least, the game seems to almost require it.  Even with the HDR setting off, the game has a very harsh internal contrast that seems designed to show off HDR.  At times it gives a convincing illusion of HDR on a screen that doesn’t support it, but in low light areas it was annoying and required tweaking of TV settings.  I imagine it looks absolutely stellar though on an OLED screen that supports HDR.

 

The Boys and the Road

You can expect to hear this from any review of this game, but the road trip aspect is the best part of this game.  My favorite thing in gaming these days is emergent gameplay.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is when moments occur in a game engine that are just created by the player interacting with a complex system and the result being fun.  It isn’t scripted, it wasn’t planned by the creators, it just happened because you pushed the right buttons.  The road trip parts of this game nail emergent gameplay in a way that I hope will become more common.

It’s the little things that make it such a personal experience.  I once coasted into a gas station after running out of fuel.  The guys got out to push (complaining of course) right as the car rolled within range of the pump.  It was such a surreal moment, that it filled me with the same joy that such a feat with my real buddies would.  For both Mike’s and my bachelor parties, we went on very similar road trips, so it hit close to home.  Experiences like this will be the norm, and will be created from a combination of factors like what route you choose and what detours you choose to make.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with Laguna years ago about Final Fantasy VIII.  Much like XV, VIII had a very serious plot that was only interrupted by interludes about these dudes on a trip.  Laguna isn’t a huge fan of dark, brooding RPGs, so for him the first Laguna and co. sequence was like this light from the heavens showing him he could like this game.  He identified so much with Laguna Loire, as well as resembling him, that we call him Laguna to this day.  This is finally another FF game where you can develop a connection like that.  Fortunately they also improved on the dark and brooding to bro trip ratio.

 

The Prince and the Pauper

Another thing everyone who plays this game can agree on is how effing expensive everything is.  Maybe the point is that life is hard outside your palace, but the economy in this game is ridiculous.  For example, the pay you receive for killing a rare monster is barely enough to buy salmon burgers at a roadside diner.  You would think the clothes off my royal back would be worth a fortune, but there appears to be no way for Noctis to access any of his royal funds or come up with a better financial plan than squandering his godlike power on killing varmints.  If this was Grand Theft Auto, I would just rob the gas station, because ya know, I could just flatten the whole town.

Money is pretty much the greatest issue you will face in this game.  I have so far been overpowered in  every other way, but way behind in gear, because just buying a few healing items breaks the bank.  It makes it kind of frustrating to do the plot, because none of the quests will give you money and they will often force you into a long string of events that deplete your very expensive resources.  The only solution I’ve found is to grind like crazy between plot missions to keep my stock of phoenix downs and elixers as full as possible.

This would be my other highest priority for future patches.  Such an otherwise polished game should not be dragged down by being too poor to buy basic items.

 

That’s all for now.  Gotta get back to playing.

 

Predictions for the next 5 years of gaming.

Posted: November 26, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features

Every so often I like to throw out sort of a “State of the Future Address” about where I think the market will go in the next 5 years.  My track record is pretty solid, so if you’re an investor, YMMV but give a read.  I want to state for the record that I have very little if any loyalty to any particular brand.  I get my hands on all the machines eventually, based mostly on when they get an exclusive title I can’t live without.  I don’t feel that any of the gaming or entertainment companies represent me or my ideals in some tribal way.  They want my money and I spend it after their thing passes my intense scrutiny.  So basically my picks here have nothing to do with being a fanboy in any sense.  Just what I’ve learned to be true by watching what works and doesn’t work in the industry over the past few decades.

 

Who wins VR?

I’m not the first to make this prediction, but I’m saying Sony hands down.  Before you nerd rage about how the HTC Vive is technically superior, accept a history lesson.  The more expensive and harder to obtain thing almost never wins.  While we are entering an age where people order everything online, we are not there yet.  Most of the world will go into a normal store, see the PSVR and the console required to run it and make their decision to buy.  People are tactile and objective-based.  The system that is mostly available online and requires a custom PC that needs to be researched, has a snowball’s chance in hell against a product that you can see and touch at Gamestop.  That is market reality, plain and simple and it will be for at least the remainder of the hardware cycle.

Also, it’s not like the PSVR is a massive step down in quality from the HTC Vive.  When configured correctly, most people agree that the PSVR has solid tracking, held back only by the camera it uses.  It has a slightly lower resolution and narrower field of view than the Vive and Oculus Rift, but these are very slight.  The difference in quality is not nearly as large as say that between the Playstation and Nintendo 64 in the late 90s.  In that case also the affordability of the hardware and the volume of quality software swung the tide massively in Sony’s favor and I think the same will repeat for the 1st gen VR race.  Also it is very likely Sony will release an updated camera and sensor accessory that will greatly narrow the gap between the PSVR and the HTC Vive.

We may see Microsoft play the same role as Nintendo in that earlier console war, by coming in late to the party with a powerful contender that makes a splash, but is too late to catch up.

 

What happens with the Nintendo Switch?

I think the Switch is the continuation of a trend we’re already seeing in gaming; a split between hardcore, high-fidelity gaming and more casual gaming and living room entertainment.  Hardcore gamers have shown a strong preference for gaming-centric boxes like the PS4 that are becoming more and more like simplified gaming PCs.  That market is likely to remain focused around one person per powerful console, with a focus on performance and function.

But we all know there’s this funky, fun, casual gamer market that is just waiting in the woodwork to turn products like Rock Band or the Nintendo Wii into 100 million plus units smash hits.  The trick is just how to aim for this unpredictable target?  Apple, Amazon, nVidia and others have all tried and basically failed with attempts that bridge the already huge phone and tablet market with the living room.  Nintendo has a leg up with having their own stranglehold on the still separate handheld gaming market.  If they can somehow make a system that captures the Mario crowd, the Pokemon crowd AND the Pokemon GO! crowd, I think this market segment will finally become permanent.  Once Apple and Amazon have someone to copy, they should have no trouble putting out competing products to make this the next exciting frontier for casual and social games.

 

What about the PC gaming market?

I think it’s very likely the PC gaming market will never again grow to the highs of the late 90s and early 00s.  What we’ve seen in the last few years will likely become the normal trend.  The market will go up and down with cycles of hardware, with surges every few years as more people upgrade around jumps in CPUs and GPUs.  It seems to have reached a sustainable level once again, thanks in part to the hardware makers branching out into other fields like gaming consoles and tablets to supplement themselves.  We’ve finally reached a point where Intel, AMD and nVidia can sustain themselves by competing at different levels in different markets.

The biggest shift I’ve been waiting for will center around the Nintendo Switch in the above section.  If the Switch is a hit, nVidia will finally be able to move hardware in a market besides high end PCs.  AMD has already made this jump by manufacturing the majority of the guts of Microsoft and Sony’s game consoles.  If this happens, the two chipset manufacturers could find an excellent balance that caters to the strengths of their current products.  AMD has very competitive midrange hardware that is perfect for game consoles, while nVidia has the best high power and low power chips.  This would keep the balance in the PC gpu race, because nVidia would not be forced into a hardware war trying to move units out of desperation, when other markets failed for them.

 

Will handheld gaming continue?

This is probably the area I feel the least confident in predicting.  It really feels to me like the Switch is Nintendo deciding that the future of handheld is becoming one with mobile and living room streaming boxes.  That makes sense to me and I think it puts a lot of the puzzle pieces into place for the entertainment market of the next decade.  So if that’s the case, handheld is dead, long live handheld.  The release of Nintendo games on phones and the Switch appearing to bridge the gap between DS, Wii and tablet could be the harbinger of the future mobile/casual/handheld market.

That being said, I have to play devil’s advocate.  Nintendo is a handheld juggernaut and Sony does not seem inclined to quit.  It is totally conceivable that Nintendo could release the Switch and a new DS, two products that would appear to just confuse the market and have both succeed.  It is also possible that Sony would release another PSP, whether it sells or not, just because they are obviously dedicated to JRPG fans.  I think that would just be straight market stupidity and a pointless continuation of old trends that are ultimately doomed, but I wouldn’t be too surprised.

A sensible Sony would just make their mobile app capable of playing PSN games and classics and Nintendo would split from the traditional gaming market to pioneer the future of family living room fun.  That’s what makes the most sense, but the world doesn’t always make sense.

 

So who wins this console generation ultimately?

I think once again it’s going to be Sony.  Sony has a good track record over the last 3 generations of success with their conservative strategy.  They are seldom first with technologies, but they time their releases and pick their prices very well.  The PSVR is showing early signs of being the first truly successful VR product.  The PS4 already had a lead in units sold over the XB1, so the success of the VR market could be an added boost.  Even if markets like VR and 4k are slow to build, Sony won’t likely lose much by releasing the PS4 Pro and PSVR.  Being seen as innovative while still having the leading product at a competitive price point is hedging their bet fairly well.

There has been a lot of talk about Sony and Microsoft just muddying the waters with this tiered hardware approach, but I think Sony and Microsoft are just feeling out how much of the PC gaming market they can slice off with a middle ground product.

I have to admit that I was personally swayed from investing in a PC upgrade and HTC Vive when the PSVR released.  It wasn’t just the cheaper price point, it was that Sony’s product targeted my desires better than competitors.  They had the definitive version of a game I must have (Final Fantasy XV), timed to match up with my desire to upgrade to 4k and VR.  I was already on the fence about upgrading my console or PC and how I wanted to experience VR.  Sony’s answer was for less than $1000 I could play FFXV and RE7 in 4K or VR right now.  That sounded way better to me than spend twice as much or wait a year.  I imagine quite a few people will feel the same.  Every generation, there is one holiday shopping season, usually the 3rd or 4th year, that defines the console cycle.  This is the year where you pretty much have to upgrade to play any new games and it’s also probably the year everyone went 4k on Black Friday.  I believe this is the one and Sony is the only company with the right products available now.

 

That’s all folks.  If nothing else, it will be fun to look back in 5 years and see how right or wrong I was.

 

Why HiFi Sound for Gaming

Posted: September 5, 2016 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

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Yer doin’ it wrong.

 

When I started working as an A/V installer over a year ago, my home theater setup was probably much like most of yours.  I had one of those TVs you wait in line for on black friday, that’s really cheap for how big it is.  When I realized the sound was completely unacceptable, I bought one of those inexpensive under-tv sound boxes with 2 speakers and a sub-woofer built in.  I could now hear the noises and see the things, I felt that anything more was completely superfluous and not worth the effort.

Now my living room is a little different.  I still have the TV, but it’s next on the list.  The sound however is completely upgraded.  I’m not going to brag about my system, it’s mostly stuff I got free from work that isn’t the newest or had to be repaired first.  The point is that it’s a fully tuned 7.1 system with the best connections and running in the newest processing modes.  The difference it makes when gaming is huge.  It’s more than just surround sound being more immersive, a decent receiver has numerous benefits to a gamer which you may not even be aware existed.

 

True Surround Sound

One thing a lot of people don’t fully grasp, is what is actually surround sound and what is fake surround sound.  If it comes out of less than 4 speakers or is sent through 2 or less conductors, it is not surround sound.  So if your TV or sound bar has a “surround mode”, that is nothing like true surround.  By the same token, if your connection is through a headphone plug or the two red and white RCA cables, it is not true surround.  So most PC headsets that say surround are not surround.  The only way to get real surround sound (where the individual noises are sent to different speakers) is with a digital connection like an optical TOSlink, HDMI cable or the big orange RCA digital coaxial.

Even many people who have 5 or more speakers and have all their devices connected through HDMI, often are not using surround sound because they are not in the right mode.  To fully utilize the surround sound capability of your game system or PC, you need to be in a digital sound mode like DTS.  There are so many different digital sound modes at this point that it is almost impossible for me to tell you which is the best for your setup and game device.  On the front of your receiver or amplifier, it should say digital somewhere and the sound mode should be DTS, Dolby Digital or something similar.  Modes like Atmos and DTS:X are for more than 7 speakers and if supported, will only work with the right speakers.  If your receiver has an “auto” setting, this will usually select the best setting for your current speakers and input signal.

Once you are playing in true surround, the benefits to gaming will be easy to hear.  I’m a big fan of the Dark Souls series and this leads to a perfect example.  When playing in stereo and being invaded, you generally spend a moment spinning your camera around looking for the invader.  When playing in digital surround, the noise made when a player spawns is clearly audible from a distance in the direction it came from.  This shaves a couple of seconds off your battle preparation and gives an immediate gameplay advantage.  Insert situation from your favorite game here.  This is only the first and most obvious benefit of HiFi gaming.

 

Make Bad Look and Sound Good

Another huge benefit to running your games through a receiver is the many sound and picture processing features built into a modern stereo.  Besides just surround sound modes, a home theater receiver will have features to clean up and expand different stereo signals.  Some stereo devices, like the Wii or other older game systems, are capable of Dolby Pro Logic.  Pro Logic is a kind of stereo signal that is designed to be friendly to simulated surround sound.  Your receiver can process this into something that is somewhere in the middle between stereo and surround sound.  You can also use multi-channel stereo, which just takes any old 2 channel sound and wraps it around all the speakers.  While it won’t do anything to send sounds in different direction to simulate depth, it does immerse you more in an old game than just playing out the front left and right speakers would.

This also applies to processing picture.  If you are an old-school gamer, I would highly recommend a receiver with analog to digital upconversion over HDMI.  In layman’s terms, this means you plug in your Super NES to the receiver with its old crappy RCA cables and the receiver outputs it through HDMI to your TV.  This is pretty much essential if you want to play those systems on a newer TV.  Many newer TVs don’t even include analog inputs or are not even capable of resolutions below 480p like you would get out of a 16 or 32-bit console.  Many higher end receivers can even upconvert lower resolution signals to 1080p or 4k, which will not make the original image look better, but will eliminate a lot of the fuzziness caused by using the TV’s built in upconversion.  Even newer games that run at higher resolutions will benefit if you are using a TV or monitor that is still higher res.  A receiver will almost always have better and faster upconversion than a TV, so a PS4 or XB1 running through a receiver will look cleaner on a 4k TV.

 

Better Speakers Aren’t Just Louder

When I recommend upgrading sound, a lot of people comment about how they don’t really want something really loud.  This is a misconception brought on by using crappy sound.  In the days of old TV, when you couldn’t hear something, you just had to turn it up.  Most of us still think of sound in these terms.  When our new TV has crappy sound, we buy a sound bar that is the same thing, just louder.  Now the sound can go louder than the pathetic tiny speakers in the thin TV, so we can hear the dialogue again.  The problem with bad speakers isn’t their volume though.  You can’t hear everything clearly because all of the sounds are being forced out of two tiny speakers with limited sound range.  A speaker can only be designed to make a certain range of high and low frequency sounds, further limited by the size of the speaker.  To keep this simple, a big tower speaker can be heard much clearer at low volume than a small TV speaker, because it has several speakers inside playing the high and low sounds separately.  So although both are just playing the left and right sound channels, the larger speaker is separating it out more so you can pick out the voices from the car engines.

Furthermore, adding more speakers is not just adding more noise.  If you have trouble hearing dialogue clearly, you will be amazed at the difference a center channel speaker will make.  The center speaker plays mostly dialogue and sounds made by the things the screen is focused on.  The same is true for each level of extra speakers you add to your system.  Surround speakers go without much further description.  A subwoofer has much more utility than just making big booms.  Almost all receivers will allow you to select the individual crossover frequencies for each speaker.  In laymen’s terms, this means you can tell the smaller speakers to send most of their bass to the subwoofer so that noises in the background have convincing depth.  Although the subwoofer doesn’t move, the low frequency sound travels better and tricks your ear into hearing it with the sound from the source speaker.  You can go all out and add front height speakers, far rear speakers or ceiling mounted ambient noise speakers for the aforementioned Dolby Atmos.  The more you separate the sounds, the more realistic and immersive it becomes.

 

More Input, More Control

Personally, I have more than one gaming device.  I actually have more than 10 gaming devices.  If having a retro collection was not currently chic in gaming culture, I would probably be on Hoarders.  If you are even 1/10th as bad as I am, you have probably long ago run out of inputs on your TV.  You may be using splitters, one of those remote controlled switch boxes or even getting up and switching cables.  Although newer receivers are starting to have fewer and fewer old analog inputs (my 2014 Denon has 2 RCA, 2 component and the rest are HDMI), with a few adapters you should be able to connect at least 3 classic systems in addition to several new systems, a cable box and a BluRay player.  If your entertainment center can hold more than that, you may need splitters, but that should do it for most people.

Since the receiver has only one output to the TV, you don’t need to change any inputs or volume on the TV.  If you can configure your remote to turn the TV on, you should be able to reduce your setup to a couple button presses on the stereo remote and turning on your classic system, before you see your classic game on the screen in the best possible picture and sound quality.  This applies to new systems too, as the receiver will usually keep the settings for each input separately.  So you just push the Xbox input button and turn on the Xbox and the sound and picture will automatically be right, even if you were last watching an old VHS tape in analog stereo.  Even if you somehow mess up the inputs or settings, most receivers are smart about detecting what is plugged in and turned on.  As long as you leave most of the settings on auto, it should right itself unless that cable just isn’t supposed to go there.

Finally you can control most receivers that are wifi capable with an app on your phone or tablet.  You are also generally able to stream music from your phone or tablet to your stereo.  This allows you to control the volume, settings or just turn on your tunes at any time without hunting for the remote.  Since this is over WiFi, not using bluetooth or infared, you can do this anywhere in the range of your home WiFi.  Much better than pointing the remote or having to stay within 25-30 feet.  This is especially useful if you have a multi-zone stereo with speakers outside or throughout the house.  You can change what is playing in different areas, or adjust the volume for other rooms, without going back to where the stereo is.

 

That pretty much wraps this one up.  Hopefully this explanation helps you when deciding how much to put into sound for your gaming setup.