Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some time ago I blogged about how the Wii was looking like the way forward for the gaming industry. The Xbox 360 and PS3 may have the better graphics, but the Wii has its motion sensitive controller, possibly the most revolutionary item of gaming hardware since the joystick was invented. I was interested to re-read my words from back then, because I raved about how the Wii looked great, while the PS3 looked dead in the water, and that I wasn't that impressed with the Xbox360. Yet, as you will notice by scrolling down the page a little, the other day I got me an Xbox, not a Wii. Why? Well to answer that question, we have to talk about the Wii version of a game called Rockstar Presents Table Tennis.

The game was first released on the Xbox 360 over a year ago, and made a big impact due to it's outstanding graphics, addictive gameplay, and cheap price. In fact, the existence of the game contributed to my decision to buy an Xbox360 rather than a Wii or PS3, in that it is part of a large catalog of excellent games that I wanted to play, that were only available for the Xbox. The news that it had been ported recently to the Wii made me feel a little sick - surely the idea of actually being able to *play* virtual table tennis, crafting shots with a motion sensitive controller, would make this version superior to that on the Xbox? In which case, had a just bought the wrong console?

Well, from reading about the game, and from having played around a bit with other games on Wii, it would appear that my fears are unfounded. Yes you can use the motion sensitive controller to play table tennis, but in a completely unrealistic way. You don't hit the ball as you would do with a table tennis bat, you have to learn to make the correct gesture in order to hit the ball in the desired direction - it doesn't even separate the different swings for forehand and backhand - and to impart spin (crucial in table tennis) you have to resort to pushing buttons on the controller body. Basically, you still have to learn an artificial control scheme before you can actually play the game which, for me, rather nullifies the point of having motion sensitive controller.

The other big difference is the fact that there is no online play in the Wii version. Playing another human being is vastly more satisfying than playing an artifical intelligence, and online play gives you a greater opportunity to do that. Lastly, the graphics are crap, at least compared to the almost-lifelike quality of those of the Xbox verion. I know this shouldn't matter, but when you're comparing two versions of the same game, there's no doubt that it does.

I must admit that, in general, and having played it a bit at a mate's house and in FNAC, I'm quite disappointed with the Wii. Yes, it is a significant milestone in computer gaming. Yes, it has been a commercial success. Yes, it has drawn in grannies and mums and all sorts of people that never thought they would play a video game, ever. And you have to applaud Nintendo for achieving that. Yet all it has managed to do is pull the wool over people's eyes, glossing over the necessity to learn an artificial control system by making it seem more real - but real it is not, and learn it you must. For those of us less scared of traditional console joypads, the wiimote is actually a regressive step, offering less precision and less opportunity to practice and master a game's interface.

So although the Wii is a step in the right direction, I'm happy with the Xbox for the time being. Eventually, somebody will develop a commercially viable controller that is able to properly mimic the motion of a virtual table-tennis bat, and let you play near-as-dammit real table tennis against some random person in another part of the world. That would be worth paying money for.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rugby Final

I watched the game in some Irish bar downtown. Possibly the dullest game of rugby I've ever watched. I spotted this on the Guardian's website, a comment by some anonymous person,

Well done England for getting to the final with a crap team. I hope it will be some solace to you to know that Wales scored 50 points more than you despite playing three games fewer.

Home come Johnny didn't do that thing with the drop goal in the dying minutes?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Xbox 360

Despite my last post, it would seem that recently I've gone all Microsoft crazy in that I've installed Vista, and got me an Xbox 360. Now I'm no great fan of Microsoft, but neither am I a Sony/Nintendo/Mac/Linux/Unix/ fanboy, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

So, the Xbox. I have been thinking of getting one for ages, tempted by stories of online gaming, cheap retro games and Media Centre compatibility. What finally tipped the cart was a miserable wet Saturday morning (after I'd just come back from a miserable week in Germany), a lack of Djanira in the flat, and only the sixth ever 10/10 given to a game by Edge Magazine, for Halo 3.

So, is all the hype worth it? Well, there's no denying that, by and large, it all seems to work very well. Xbox Live (the name given to the online gaming portal) couldn't be easier to set up, but the biggest novelty is not just being able to play games online (the PC sorted this years ago), but being able to speak to other players in real time. The Xbox comes with a (wireless) controller and a headset unit that plugs into it, which enables communication between players. It's quite something to be able to play Rockstar's Table Tennis against a human-being located who-knows-where in the world; but it's something else entirely being able to speak to them as you play, congratulate them on a good shot, complement each other after a good rally or, more usually in my case, excuse oneself for being completely rubbish. The headset, and its default inclusion into the Xbox Live experience, is what elevates online gaming on the console above that what is available for the PC. Sure, there are a million and one gaming-talk applications on the PC, while on the Xbox there is only one - but everybody is using it.

There other excellent feature of Xbox Live is 'Xbox Live Arcade', a growing collection of old-school (though not necessarily old) arcade games that can be downloaded and saved to the console's hard-drive for a few quid each. Most of them have a free demo-level for you to try, and while many of them are rubbish, some are excellent. Geometry Wars is one of the most popular and has become a classic, proving that you don't need amazing graphics to have a great game, but I'm very excited about SpeedBall 2, a classic amiga game which I used to play with my cousin John when I was a kid, which is being revamped for Xbox Live Arcade. Lastly, Xbox Live lets you download free demos for all the latest full-price releases, nothing new for a PC gamer but a welcome bonus for your average consolista.

The final clincher for me is the console's integration with a PC running XP Media Centre or Vista. The Xbox connects with the Media Centre, allowing you to access the music and video stored on your PC through the console. This works well for me as my PC (and all my music) is not in the lounge, but my Xbox is: ergo I can listen to tunes in the lounge without having to go through the hassle of burning a CD and all that. There's no doubt that the interface is very slick and it all works well, though the lack of native DivX and Xvid video support on the Xbox is what prevents it from being the all-in-one solution. Still, it is very impressive.

So, to conclude; from what I've experienced and read of the PS3 and the Wii, the Xbox is quite comfortably ahead in terms of functionality, at least at the moment. Of course, the fact that it is an accomplished single-player gaming system is one thing, but what really sets it apart is its online and media centre capabilities. All I need now is get some of you lot to come and join me in Halo 3's cooperative mode...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Old Microsoft joke

I was searching the internet for some help with a little code problem I had, and stumbled across this page, which consists of some bloke asking a question (exactly the same one as I had) and a Microsoft employee giving an answer:


Upon reading it I was instantly reminded of old joke which, given the employee's response in the link above, is based upon reality...!

A helicopter was flying around above Seattle when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft's electronic navigation and communications qquipment. Due to the clouds and haze, the pilot could not determine the helicopter's position and course to fly to the airport. The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign, and held it in the helicopter's window. The pilot's sign said "WHERE AM I?" in large letters. People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a large sign and held it in a building window. Their sign read: "YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER." The pilot smiled, waved, looked at her map, determined the course to steer to SEATAC airport, and landed safely. After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the "YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER" sign helped determine their position. The pilot responded "I knew that had to be the Microsoft building because, like their technical support, online help and product documentation, the response they gave me was technically correct, but completely useless."


Friday, October 05, 2007

Internet at last!

You may recall a solution that a friend of mine employed to gain access to his neighbours wireless networks, with the aid of a wok as an arial to boost the signal. Well, had i been following my friends example over the last few months, then I would no longer need to, because now finally our flat is connected to the outside world! We had organised for one company to come and connect us up, but after three months of waiting nothing had happened, so we said bugger it and went with another company - and yesterday (less than a fortnight after I had requested it) the engineers came and installed the service. I'll be changing the default 'security' settings on my wireless router though!

In other news, the last three days have seen a solid 2 foot of swell, which in the mornings is glassy clean, but more choppy by the evening after the wind has picked up. Unfortunately, lazy bones Alun hasn't been bothered to get up early enough to enjoy it clean, and has only watched it enviously on his ride to work, and gone in in the evening instead. But the clocks go back sooner rather than later so ther'll be no time for surfing after work, so I'll have to get my arse in gear in the mornings.

And one funny story to finish off. Yesterday afternoon it started to rain, and I couldn't help chuckling as the whole off office stopped working and walked to the window to look. In fairness, it was a quite impressive heavy shower, but the thought struck me that if people behaved similarly in Britain, nobody would get any work done!