Offsping of the Magic Wii

  on April 10th, 2007

Nintendo DS LiteI couldn’t help myself. The urge was too strong. I could hold out no longer and splashed out on a Nintendo DS.

My white Wii has impressed so many that I decided to match it and buy a white DS. Except I couldn’t. For about a week I looked around the town centre and online, searching for the best deals. £99.99 is the RRP and everyone appears to be sticking to it. Even the likes of and aren’t discounting the unit (well, Amazon have it for £99.98!) Reports had it, that over the Christmas period, shops had sold out of both the Wii and DS. Even now, four months after launch, I have yet to actually see a Wii on a shop shelf anywhere (and I do keep an eye out, out of interest). Fortunately the DS isn’t quite so rare now but I still had some trouble. The best place I could find was GameStation in town. £154.99 for a DS Lite (the newer remodelled DS, much sleeker and less Fisher Price looking) plus any three games. I went in there and of the three colour options (black, white and pink) they only had pink left. Not really my style, so I left grumpilly wondering if I’d find one anywhere else. Then I remembered – the local Blockbuster rental store had a GameStation franchise inside. I rushed off to another part of town, asked the same question I had opened with at the other shop (“Can I include pre-owned games in the 3 game DS bundle?”) and this time I had the reply ‘Yes, we only have black and pink DSes in stock, though’ – much better than ‘Yes, we only have pink DSes in stock, though’! I’d really wanted a white (for one thing the black really shows up the finger marks – as I knew from two colleagues who also have black DSes). Nonetheless, black would do! Little wonder nowhere is discounting the DS – why would they when it sells so easily at full price?

Now I am one more to add to those statistics. A fews days or so before I bought my DS I saw the incredible news story that Nintendo had sold over 3 million DSes in the UK alone. Many news sites also gave the DS as having 68% of the UK handheld market, with the remaining 32% split in some way between the Nintendo Gameboy Advance (still going strong despite the DS’s appearance) and the Sony PSP. This makes me wonder about the PlayStation3’s future in the UK, too – according to the BBC when the PSP was launched it sold almost twice as many as the DS at launch and becoming the ‘fastest selling games console of all time’ in the UK until the PS3 beat it. Now look at the situation with the PSP – less than a million units sold compared to over three million.  I don’t think either the PSP or the PS3 are going to disappear (at least not until their natural product life cycles come to an end in five years or so) but it is a testament to Nintendo’s concentration on the devices as games machines and putting the enjoyment factor before the cool gadget features. The odd thing is I am normally the type of person who would go for the gadgets – I’m a natural PSP user. Nintendo really must be doing something right to get me onboard.  In fact it is a direct result of how impressed I am about the Wii that I bought a DS.  No doubt it will work the other way for DS owners who haven’t yet got a Wii.

The only problem I’ve been having is finding the cream of the crop of games. Two games I wanted to buy with my DS were ‘Advance Wars: Dual Strike’ (note the clever pun on DS!) and ‘Another Code’. Both are slightly older games and universally appeared to have gained ‘top game’ honours at various websites and games magazines. Naturally they were impossible to buy new, their initial publishing run in this country long since having sold out. DS games seem to come in at basically two price points. £29.99 for the top games and £19.99 for the older games and more budget audience aimed games. I’m sure both of these games I was after would have come out at £29.99 and stayed there until sold out. Fortunately both GameStations had one of each game in their pre-owned section. I think one was £24.99 and the other £26.99! More expensive than most new games!! That’s why I made sure pre-owned were included in the 3 game bundle! Advance Wars is Turn Based Strategy game (similar to Civilisation), Another Code is a graphical adventure game (similar in concept to Myst) and the third game I bought was a new game (in the £19.99 section!) called Age of Empires – another strategy game (that many PC gamers will already know – and no, no Microsoft involvement in this port!). All three make fantastic use of the dual screens and touch screen functionality.

Since then I’ve gone on the buy Big Brain Academy and Wario Ware: Touched. The DS is a great little device – all the fun of playing with my wii but in public!




  on March 10th, 2007

I said I’d mention more of MMOs and, well, then went quiet!

Mainly that was thanks to a combination of laziness and the most recent Staggering Stories update – which was mammoth (and late thanks to the extinct hairy elephantness of it). The quality was even better than that quantity, too – look on the Staggering Stories site for yourself! A big thank you to everyone who helped make it possible – another update to be proud of!

Back on topic, though. I won’t go back to the glory days of MMOs here (I may return to that in the future, though, if you are unlucky). Instead I will have a quick moan about Sony Online Entertainment!

It starts with Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (well, actually it started with Star Wars Galaxies but ignoring the past…) Vanguard is a game of incredible potential. A truly massive game in scope and real estate. Real estate? Yes, it has big wide rolling landscapes with a very naturalistic look. It would be stunning to look at it if I didn’t have to drop my resolution so low to get it to run on my machine. Even at that low res I have to turn the image quality settings right down just to get 20+ Frames Per Second out in the wilds. In major cities the frame rate drops to 2 or 3 FPS – a slide show. True, I don’t have the most up-to-date hardware but I can run the likes of World of Warcraft and Guild Wars at full quality settings (and both look fantastic). I would even go as far to say that WoW looks better than a fully spiffed up Vanguard. The reason: style. Vanguard visuals try to look more natural but are doomed to be less interesting than the highly stylised look of others. That’s the difference between an art direction and trying to make something look like it would out of my window.

So, besides the slightly boring looks and abysmal performance, what else is wrong with Vanguard? There are obviously the inevitable bugs that come with rushing a game out before it is ready (and Sigil, the makers of Vanguard, apparently even admitted as much – they needed the money!) Those will, hopefully, be fixed in time (unlike what happened with SWG, which still has launch bugs to this day and plenty more besides.) The game play is the thing that really kills it right now, though. They have added new ideas, particularly the Diplomacy ‘card game’. They’ve borrowed some of the best ideas from SWG, such as player housing and in-depth crafting. They haven’t, however, brought in the best element of SWG (now missing in action there too) which was forced class interaction. Players had to seek medical attention, they had to have down time with entertainers, they had to buy armour, weapons and food – looted versions were only basic and virtually worthless. That’s not there in Vanguard, instead you have vendors with computer generated items and loot drops. There are no real reasons to go back to town, that I’ve found, other than to visit trainers or quest NPCs. The quests themselves are pretty standard fare of kill N of X creature, kill Xs until you have looted Y objects or visit location/NPC Z. Nothing new there.

It sounds like I’m completely down on Vanguard but I’m not. The real thing that colours my vision of this game is the performance. I’m not going to spend the best part of a £1000 to upgrade my machine to a point it might approach comfortable playing conditions. Towards the end of the year I probably will upgrade my machine, it’s due, but no other game I’m currently playing requires it right now. Vanguard is not compelling enough to force me to upgrade early.

The other fly in the ointment is SOE’s price hike for their Station Access subscription. Station Access gives you a subscription to all of SOE’s MMO games for one monthly price. A good deal if you want to dabble and the price is right. What was $22.99 (Yankee Dollars, plus 17.5% VAT for us Europeans), when I originally signed up for it a little over a year ago, has now been announced will go up to $29.99 on the 2nd April 2007. What must be a little under a year ago I quit Station Access when they pushed the price up to $24.99. If an extra couple of dollars made me cancel my Station Access last time you can imagine what five dollars will do now I’ve returned to it, for $25, this time. This new price rise means that Station Access is actually more expensive than two monthly recurring SOE games (by one cent – they are $14.99 each a month). It’s even worse if you compare paying for three, six or twelve months at a time – an option you don’t have with Station Access. Three months subscription to one of their games comes in at effectively $13.99 a month, six months at $12.99 a month and twelve months at $11.99 a month. Station Access used to be a reasonable deal for playing one game and dabbling in all of SOE’s other games (you still have to buy the retail boxes and upgrades, though). Now you’d have to be seriously playing two SOE games and wanting to dabble with the others to make it worthwhile. I doubt many people have the time for that. SOE are pushing away their most dedicated supporters. They will never get anywhere close to challenging World of Warcraft’s dominance with behaviour like that.

On a happier note, it looks like Babylon 5: The Lost Tales is shaping up nicely. Warning: many spoilers there, I saw a couple and stopped reading it! Nonetheless the pictures are basically safe as we all know who’s in this already!
Galen and Sheridan



You crack me up, little buddy

  on February 2nd, 2007

Sam and MaxYes, I said I would say some more about MMOs but I’m afraid the Freelance Police have caught me – Sam and Max are back!

Fans of the old LucasArts graphical adventures (such as the Monkey Island series, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, etc.) will undoubtedly remember the original Sam and Max Hit the Road game from 1993. Since then LucasArts have become a Star Wars exclusive label (and a generally poor one, at that) and with them went the mainstream adventure game. For years fans of the original Sam and Max game (and fans of the original, otherwise slightly obscure, comic book characters that spawned that game) have demanded more. It wasn’t until sometime in 2005 that the rights for another computer game reverted to the creator of Sam and Max, Steve Purcell (no relation, sadly), and only then was another game a possibility. At the end of last year (October of 2006, I believe) it finally happened, Sam and Max: Culture Shock was released!

Just who are Sam and Max? Here’s excerpts borrowed from Wikipedia (they can have them back when we’re finished!):


“Sam is a laid-back, but enthusiastic anthropomorphic dog wearing a suit and a hat. He is usually the brains of the operation, often trying to figure out a logical solution to things. He is prone to long-winded sentences filled with elaborate buzzwords. He is also rarely seen losing his temper (except when he’s given a pink belly), and is able to react to panic-inducing situations with extreme calm.”


“Max is a “hyperkinetic rabbity thing” (he himself prefers being called a “lagomorph“) with a huge jaw normally stuck in a crazed grin, showing off his razor sharp teeth. He enjoys violence and tends to prefer the aggressive way of solving problems. He has a slight distaste for the long stories, anecdotes and sentences that Sam consistently spouts forth, often asking Sam not to use various words. He shares Sam’s enthusiasm in just about anything, especially if it involves large guns and trouble.”

It is very film noir like but deliberately humorous. The original Hit the Road game was a 2D graphical adventure, with animated characters moving around on scrolling but otherwise static backgrounds. You move the crime fighting duo around with the mouse and have them interact with objects and other characters. Sounds dull when put in those terms but it really isn’t. The dialogue and bizarre plot twists are what make the games.

The new Sam and Max is actually a series of fairly short games (a few hours apiece) based on the new buzz phrase of Episodic gaming. There are to be six episodes in this first season. If they do well we can only hope there is a second season. After LucasArts turned their back on their adventure game heritage (which was finally confirmed in 2004 when their own highly publicised sequel, Sam and Max: Freelance Police, was canned shortly before release) several of their employees left to form their own company, Telltale Games. These talented people have taken their experiences on the doomed LucasArts sequel and produced a fully 3D Sam and Max series of games. They have done an amazing job, as you’d expect from a group with such a history in some of the top graphical adventures ever created.

I’ve now completed the first two episodes (Culture Shock and Situation: Comedy), having bought the entire season based only on the extremely short free demo of episode one (and my memories of the original Sam and Max Hit the Road game). It’s $34.95 + UK VAT (or whatever your local sales tax is, I assume) for the entire season (£21 or so on my credit card after currency conversion) or $8.95 + UK VAT for a single episode (what would that be, £5 or so?) Excellent value compared to many games that only give 10-12 hours play time for £30.

Perhaps the most telling thing is that I’ve not wanted to play anything else recently! I was in the Vanguard: Saga of Heroes beta and now into release. I’ve still got an active account to World of Warcraft. I’d rather play Sam and Max, though. It’s just so fun (and the puzzles are pitched just right for my, maybe feeble, mind!) I highly recommend you download the free demo, to get a flavour of the madness that is Sam and Max!



MMO Madness!

  on January 18th, 2007

Recently things have been fairly quiet, for me at least, in the world of Massively Multiplayer Online games. That looks as if it is changing.

Star Wars GalaxiesGoing back, way back, to the beginning, though. It all started some two and a half years ago, or so (11th July 2004), with Star Wars Galaxies. A few months before that one of my cousins was telling me about SWG and it sounded like fun. I wasn’t sure about the paying a monthly subscription just to play a computer game. Nonetheless I saw that Gamespot had a 14 day free trial of SWG so I decided I had nothing to lose…

My first MMO. What an experience it was! It certainly felt ‘massive’ – and I hadn’t even got off my start planet of Tatooine at that point. It was undoubtedly ‘multiplayer’ and clearly ‘online’. So, there I was not knowing a thing about the game (I didn’t even have a manual as this was a downloaded trial). All I had was a green R2 unit as a friendly guide and an incredible learning curve ahead of me. The performance wasn’t great, especially around the famous cantina in Mos Eisley – the game was probably at its height of popularity at this point, all those player characters running around really pushed my machine to its limits. It was easy to see why it was popular. I was in _the_ cantina! The funny band were there, playing their odd jazz music we all know so well. Imperial Stormtroopers made their presence known to all. Dozens of players were in the cantina dancing, playing musical instruments or watching others do so. The place was awash with chatter. The place was alive.

Exploration was what I wanted. My first instinct was to become a Bounty Hunter – it was the obvious choice for a character called Tonb Terak. The skill system was impressively complicated to my newbie eyes. Bounty Hunter was some kind of elite profession, before I could qualify for it I needed to have skills in scout and hand guns (as I recall). Those were both starter professions, so I took them both. In fact I had enough skill points spare to take pretty much all the starting professions – I could drop some later when I needed the points for higher level skills. It was the scout and pistols skill that really got my exploration going, though. The little green droid told me to go out to the edge of Mos Eisley and kill some Womp Rats or similar vermin. They were tougher than they looked. I died. Fortunately I had a ‘get out of death free’ card and woke up in the Mos Eisley cloning centre. I had some injuries nonetheless, some battle fatigue and physical wounds. I went off to the medical centre where several players with medical skills were to be found. They patched me up in no time and I tipped them a few credits (I didn’t have many yet). It was good fun ‘roleplaying’ it. I told the medic how some Womp Rat got the better of me, how I woke up dead in the cloner but was feeling much better now. You had to be there! Then it was off to the cantina to watch some Twi’lek woman gyrating to the music to work off my battle fatigue. Thank goodness I had found some SWG websites and forums to explain these things to me! A little bit later I had triumphed and the little green droid taught me how to harvest the fallen Womp Rats for hide, meat or bone. My green R2 friend then taught me how to make a little camp (with tent, fire and a fold up chair or two) out of some hide and bone. Even out in the wilds I could be at home!

At this point I hadn’t even left the area around Mos Eisley. I didn’t have enough money for the shuttle (let alone the ships at the space port that will take me to a different world) and certainly not the 10,000 or so credits I needed for a speeder. I had a mission, from one of the convenient mission terminals dotted around Mos Eisley, to go somewhere far away on the map. I had no choice but to walk. What a walk it was! Just beyond viewing distance of Mos Eisley I came across a burning Jawa Sandcrawler. Wow – that’s the one from the original Star Wars film, I thought! Things got hairy after that. The creatures I came across away from Mos Eisley looked a lot tougher than me. Keeping an eye on my mini-map I did my best to steer clear of them. When I heard the ‘combat music’ kick in I performed a Burst Run to get away. The trek took two to three hours, I think. A simple delivery mission. It was a massive world. I made my way back, still on foot. This time I left the character to walk back without much help from me, setting him to autorun. Meanwhile I kept only half an eye on that as I pulled my laptop out and surfed the Internet for SWG information. What I really needed was money and I wasn’t making it very quickly at this rate. Only a few days into my trial account and I was already on eBay buying 2 million credits! It was about £20 and well worth the money (though there was an unfortunate incident at first where I didn’t realise trial accounts could have a maximum of 50,000 credits – whoops 1.95 million flushed away.) Quickly signing up properly for SWG and buying another 2 million sorted out my in-game finances for good (I never got close to running out of money after that, in fact my character has over 17 million now after some very profitable hunting contracts for other players…) The world was my oyster now and my exploration and appreciation for the game had only begun.

Nothing lasts forever, though. The challenging learning curve leveled out after a few months and there seemed little left to do. I won’t even go into the mess that Sony Online Entertainment made of the game with their constant revamping and dumbing down. Yes, I’m still rather bitter about what they did to SWG but the truth is I’d probably played it to death by that point anyway. There’s nothing like your first time and I can never replicate those first experiences of an MMO, not even if SOE reset SWG to July 2004 status and I started over.

MMOs didn’t stop there for me, though. I then did a 14 day trail of Eve Online. Eve is a space trading game very much like the old Elite computer game from 1984, only much bigger, much more ‘realistic’ and filled with tens of thousands of other people. I loved Elite back in the day and it sounded like the perfect MMO for me. It didn’t immediately grab me, though. 14 days isn’t really enough. I’ve got a retail CD somewhere with a month subscription included – I really must give it a better try at some stage. That was November 27 2004 – 9 December 2004. I did actually try to convert my trial account into a live account using the retail CD but, unfortunately, their website wasn’t actually able to accept the CD code anymore. Instead I’d have to buy a code on their website for €19.99. I emailed them and they said I should create a new account using the CD key (which was still possible, just not to convert from a trial account) and they’d transfer my trial character over if I submit a request to their customer support people. That all sounded like too much trouble so I let it slide. I couldn’t just leave my Tonb Terak character to fester away on a discarded trial account while I used a different character on a live account! Maybe someday I will return to Eve.

Next it was the City of Heroes Beta. More on that next time.

Yes, this is all leading somewhere (perhaps). The potential parallels between SWG and my newest Beta experience – Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. As I said, though, more on that next time!



They can’t get enough of my Wii

  on December 15th, 2006

Nintendo Wii Last Friday, the 8th of December (aka European Day of the Wii) I found myself standing outside the local Game computer games shop. It was a wet Friday. It was also a dark Friday at 06:30 when I arrived. I was, initially, a queue of one.

A few shops, in a few areas, had a midnight opening, some six and a half hours earlier, to celebrate the launch of the new Nintendo Wii games console. I too would have turned up at a midnight opening but here we had a 7AM opening instead which, I think, is preferable. For one thing I didn’t need to wake up any earlier than usual to be there for 06:30 (though I did defer my morning shower to save a bit of time – I didn’t think poor personal hygiene would mark me out from the others queuing up!). Another plus point being I had a full day to play with my new Wii before collapsing of exhaustion.

So, there I was, huddled in the doorway of the shop to avoid the rain. Sadly there was nobody around the town centre that time in the morning to mistake me for a homeless person and throw money my way. I was surprised how late the queue was added to, 06:48 – I would have had time for that shower after all! The shop manager and an assistant arrived some ten minutes or so before that, I don’t know what they were expecting but I wonder if they weren’t regretting getting out of bed to open early for one person! Those last ten minutes saw the queue really form, by 07:00 there was no doubt the early opening was a success. I didn’t count the people (I was too focused on staying in the front as it wasn’t a queue so much as a huddle around the front doors) but it must have been 20 or so. That may not sound like much but for such an early start (and on a work day) it looked quite impressive. They weren’t kids, either, they mostly appeared 20 or 30 somethings. I expect the children and their families turned up later, trusting their preorders would be honoured.

Eventually the doors opened (pretty much spot on 7, I think). We all charged. I was at the front and that’s where I was determined to stay. Victory! Bypassing the usual queuing mechanism I went straight to the end till. Preorder 1004. Wii console, Wii Play game (with second Wii Remote controller), The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess game, second Nunchuk controller. Check. No Component cable – they’ve been held up in customs. Customs? Dangerous things those TV connection cables, they could be used by trained assassins to throttle innocent members of the public. Anyway, the most important parts of my preorder were there and waiting. I’m not sure if they would have held back the accessories and games for me or not but the Wii itself had a 1004 note stuck on the box, I’m glad I played it safe.

So, what’s the Wii actually like? It is as good as everyone has been saying. Back before they gave it the slightly ridiculous name of ‘Wii’ it was known by the codename ‘Revolution’. It’s only been around a few weeks worldwide (just one here, in the UK, of course) so it is hard to judge what impact it will have long term but it really does feel like a revolution in gaming. The motion sensitive ‘Wiimote’ controller adds an extra level of fun and does away with those increasingly complicated and obscure button covered controllers of old. I really think it is the dawn of a new age of gaming interaction (and maybe wider machine interaction). Time will tell on that but certainly using the wireless controller like a tennis racket, a rounders bat, a golf club, a sword, a snooker cue, a bowling ball, etc., is extremely good fun and that’s what it is all about. The Wii also appears to be trying to make a return to the old days of multiplayer games, friends or families gathered around a screen sharing the experience. This is a console designed for the living room rather than a child’s bedroom. Internet multiplayer is coming for the Wii (we are just waiting on the games that use it) but that just isn’t the same as playing together in the same room.

In truth I haven’t had nearly as much time to use my Wii as I’d like, the Christmas Staggering Stories update (for one thing) is taking up most of my spare time now. Nonetheless I did take Wii Day off work to give it a good test. Wii Sports, the pack-in game, was certainly the immediate highlight, particularly the tennis game. Wii Play is quite good too, particularly the clay-pigeon shooting and the billiards. Rayman: Raving Rabbids is certainly amusing though can be a little frustrating, I need to do more of the single player game to open up the multiplayer aspects (an unfortunate design decision). The ‘triple A’ launch title, Zelda, is taking longer to warm to, for me. For one thing it looks quite bad scaled up on my TV (hopefully the component cable will help with that when they finally arrive) and, well, it looks like a big game (it’s an RPG type game) that will require more time to fully appreciate. So, apart from Zelda, all my games are really collections of mini-games. Those are particularly well suited to multiplayer, which is good as I was rather hoping to use the Wii as a party machine as much as anything else.

A good few people have now had some of my Wii and all appear eager for more. That, more than anything else, is a testament for just how good the machine is. Since my Atari Jaguar, over a decade ago, I have had no interest in games consoles. The Wii has changed that. I still have little or no interest in the likes of the XBox and Playstation – they’ve just lost that sense of fun, instead concentrating on improving graphics and letting the gameplay stagnate. How many more Doom clones do we need? I’ve never owned a Nintendo machine before, never had any interest in owning one before, but their (new?) emphasis on fun, engaging gameplay for everyone has changed that. I’d recommend everyone takes a Wii.