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Posts Tagged ‘xbox 360

Musings on Xbox One Backwards Compatibility with Xbox 360

For many people out there, there was no bigger announcement (save, perhaps, the news about FFVII) during E3 2015 than Microsoft revealing its plans to support local backwards compatibility in the Xbox One for last-generation games.  Not long ago, the very idea of backwards compatibility was considered to be technically impossible (or at least very difficult), so much so that former Xbox-boss Don Mattrick panned the idea.

So it was a great surprise to hear Phil Spencer announce that this very feature would be appearing on Xbox One this year.  In his reveal, he noted that there would be an initial 100 games available by the time it officially launched this holiday.  But he also sold the idea that these games would be running natively, which is absolutely inaccurate.  Like I noted in my E3 summation for Microsoft and Sony, there is no way it can be native because there is no hidden tri-core PowerPC processor somewhere inside the console.  Instead, the Xbox One OS is emulating its predecessor’s environment.  I believe he was trying to characterize it that way to draw a distinction between this feature and the PlayStation Now service, which relies on streaming.

So how was Microsoft able to pull this off?  Well, we’ll probably never receive a definitive answer, but I have a strange theory that might not be too far off from the truth.  You see, the process of emulating PowerPC on an Intel processor has already been accomplished — by Apple in 2006.  Back then, the Cupertino-based company was transitioning to Intel and needed to find a way to allow existing PowerPC apps to run on this new hardware.  That company’s solution was called Rosetta, which Wikipedia describes as a dynamic binary translator, and it worked surprisingly well.  I suspect that Microsoft was able to learn much from observing Apple’s work and managed to accomplish the same feat.  That said, it’s also important to remember that games are heavier programs than many of those old Mac applications that Rosetta handled so well, so I definitely have concerns about frame rates, load times, and other stability questions.

Indeed, while the Xbox 360 similarly offered backwards compatibility with its forebear, its performance ranged from passable to atrocious. I remember trying to play the original Xbox version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and it was awful.  The frame rate issues were so bad that I had to quit.  (A later remaster for the PS3 was actually quite excellent, but that game was clearly recompiled for that console.  No emulation.)

Unlike how backwards compatibility used to work on earlier consoles, this process requires that these Xbox 360 games be downloaded from Xbox Live before they can be played locally.  When you insert the game disc, all it’s doing is verifying that you own that game, which means that there must be some recompile work needed to allow the game to function.  Microsoft touted that this process wasn’t difficult and that it only needed the approval of the publishers to make their games work, though I wonder what fees it will assess.  This leads me to another realization:

Not every Xbox 360 game will receive this treatment, as you can imagine there are publishers who have (or will have) remasters of last-gen games they intend to sell for current-gen consoles.  For example, why would SquareEnix authorize a backwards compatible version of Tomb Raider (2013) when it would rather have you buy the Definitive Edition on the Xbox One?1

So what about Sony?  Well, Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida has already said that this announcement does not impact his company’s plans for PlayStation.  We’ll see if Sony changes its mind, but my guess is that the company will continue to rely upon PlayStation Now for this functionality, especially since trying to emulate the seven SPUs of the Cell processor sounds like an absurd proposition.  In truth, the rental (or subscription) model that Now offers is probably more attractive to publishers than allowing old game discs to work on new systems anyway.

Further still, those publishers would rather do an inexpensive port of those games and have them purchasable all over again on these new consoles.  And I must admit that this is how I’d rather play them, too, since they’re guaranteed to run better than through emulation.

Even so, Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for a very pro-consumer effort.


1. A potential counter-example is the inclusion of the first Mass Effect on the initial preview list.  We haven’t yet received a confirmation, but many people believe that EA intends to re-release the Mass Effect trilogy in remastered form during the lead-up to Mass Effect: Andromeda.  Why, then, would the company have allowed Microsoft to include this if it would compete with that release?  Easy answer, actually: Microsoft still owns the publishing rights to the first Mass Effect on the Xbox 360; in fact, EA was unable to bring this title to the PS3 until 2012 per a condition of that agreement.

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Written by Michael

19 June 2015 at 12:03 am

Snap Judgment – Minecraft: PlayStation 3 Edition (PS3)

I can’t believe how many times I’ve bought this game, in one form or another.: the PC edition back when it was still in Beta, the iOS Pocket Edition, the Xbox 360 Edition, and now the PlayStation 3 Edition.  (I intend to get it for PS4 as well.  I know, I’m sick.  At least the cross-upgrade price is only $5.)  In any case, here are my thoughts on this console iteration of one of the most successful titles in history:

Given that Minecraft plays much like any first-person game, the translation to console was relatively straightforward: mapped the WASD controls to the left-analog stick, and then mapped the mouse-based camera control to the right-analog stick, then put the mouse-button clicks on the triggers. And this all works very well.

The larger problem is how to deal with crafting: Minecraft on PC requires that you “draw” out the items you’re making in the crafting area.  For example, an iron sword would be a stick on the bottom forming a handle, and two ingots forming the blade atop that.  This is all done with the mouse, and despite its ill-defined nature (there are no in-game explanations, forcing you to rely on a wiki instead), it really works on PC once you get the hang of it.  But mapping this kind of thing to a gamepad would feel sloppy, no doubt.  Instead, 4J Studios (the company responsible for the creation of this port) opted to redo the entire crafting system, wherein you select the exact item you’re trying to make, and the game tells you which ingredients you need to do so.  There is no guesswork or need to cross reference.

This sense of curation extends to almost every level of the game, including how character skins and texture packs work.  Unlike PC Minecraft, where those things are free, downloadable, and fully customizable, the console editions fall under the jurisdiction of licensing; thus, these packs need to be created and approved by 4J Studios directly.  Sadly, this also makes them paid DLC, but to the developers’ credit, many of these are well done despite the annoyance.

Another difference is that console Minecraft is missing a lot of the content found in its PC cousin, which receives updates several times per year — as such, it often feels like you’re a few versions behind.  Further still, PC Minecraft is functionally infinite in size, whereas the console edition is bound to 864 meters by 864 meters.  This still feels like a large area in normal gameplay, unless you’re in the mood to explore, in which case it doesn’t take long to run into an invisible wall.

The End plays out a little differently too; console Minecraft’s Ender Dragon uses a couple different kinds of acid breath attacks, whereas PC Minecraft features  an Ender Dragon who swoops down to collide with you, often knocking you off high areas and killing you.  While the console edition is more creative, I found it a bit easier as well and never felt like I was in any danger during the battle itself.

That said, console Minecraft has some advantages, too.  PC Minecraft is notoriously difficult to fine tune to find the perfect balance between things like draw distance, particle effects, and lighting, against things like frame rate.  There are countless guides for the PC version recommending which toggles to adjust in the game, and which Java command arguments to add to the Java Control Panel to allocate more RAM to it (i.e. things like java -Xmx1024M -Xms1024M).  In this way, console Minecraft is far easier to deal with: it’s just works the way it’s supposed to, no tweaking required.  That’s not to say there aren’t seldom performance issues, especially when opening a chest, which leads to a brief stutter.  This doesn’t break the game, but you will notice it as you’ll be in and out of inventory all the time.  Despite the game’s retro graphics, there are heaps and heaps of calculations going on all the time, given its procedural generation.

Despite the deficiencies when comparing the console version and its PC counterpart, Minecraft: PlayStation 3 Edition (as well as the nearly identical Xbox 360 Edition) is a tremendously fun game.  I have high hopes that 4J will continue to make updates to the game in an admittedly vain effort to keep pace with what Mojang is doing on PC; I especially hope to see a way for maps to stay persistently online even when the host is not, as it is on Minecraft servers for PC users.

It’s hard to find a better way to spend $19.99 on a downloadable game, for all the hours you’ll spend on it.  I know I did in pursuit of my third Platinum Trophy.  A

Written by Michael

16 June 2014 at 12:35 am

Posted in Games, Reviews

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Why PlayStation 4

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Philosophy
As we entered this year, I was pretty convinced I would be getting Microsoft’s next-generation console.  Indeed, my brother and I owned more than forty games between us on the Xbox 360, making it the most prolific console, title-wise, we’ve ever owned, so upgrading to its successor seemed like a no-brainer.

That said, I owned a PlayStation 3 and liked a lot about it, especially its adhere to open standards (including non-proprietary, user-replaceable hard drives, Bluetooth, mini-USB charging, day-one inclusion of WiFi, day-one use of 1080p-capable HDMI, and rechargeable controllers out-of-the-box).  But I never treated it like my primary console, and so I was leaning towards not giving much consideration to the PlayStation 4 until, perhaps, later in this generation when certain exclusives came out.  (Really, my relationship with PlayStation was always awkward anyway: I grew up a Nintendo fan, so I had strong feelings about those N64 vs PlayStation days.)

Then we got a February event from Sony detailing the PS4, and I left it pretty impressed with the new attitude Sony was exuding from its development team, most specifically in the form PlayStation 4 architect Mark Cerny, an industry legend and maverick who helped usher in some of the most important franchises in gaming history.  He spoke about Sony’s passion for gaming, and how the PS4 was going to be a gamer’s gaming device.  This was a pretty strong turnaround from the all-in-one entertainment and media console that the PS3 was billed as.

Despite my positivity, I knew that I still needed to see Microsoft’s response.  Sure enough, the company held a pre-E3 reveal for the Xbox One, and literally proceeded to spend the first thirty minutes of a one-hour event talking about how great its television integration was going to be.  I felt like I was watching a Sony event from the days of yore.

Oh, I know that many Xbox-loyalists had a good excuse for this: they said something along the lines of, “Of course the Xbox One will have games.  That’s a given.  Why show stuff everyone knows will be there?  This event is about showing how it’s so much more than just a gaming machine.”  There’s a certain internalized logic to this idea, but it ignores the audience Microsoft was actually reaching — namely, gamers.  It’s preposterous to think that anyone besides the hardcore were turning into this event; the features they proceeded to focus on were certainly tantalizing, but wholly secondary to the early-adopter crowd an event like this attracts.  Indeed, when it came time to show a game during the back half of the reveal, Microsoft chose to show Call of Duty: Ghosts, a current-gen title that’s being cross-released on Xbox 360/PS3 and Xbox One/PS4.  While the up-port certainly looks better than its current-gen version, this title did not even remotely look next-gen, and thus inspired very few with positive feelings about Xbox One.  (Later demonstrations of games like Titanfall certainly improved my attitude towards the hardware, but not enough to sway my opinion by the time E3 hit.)

If the company were trying to broaden its appeal with this wide-net strategy, then it should have made them secondary in this presentation and made sure to first lock in the hardcore gaming crowd, trusting that these Xbox early adopters would proselytize these TV features to their non-gaming friends and family.  (I’m convinced this is how the Wii was so successful — word of mouth and personal demonstration.)

Sony did not take this tact, as I’ve already mentioned.  Instead of using Microsoft’s approach, again summed up as, “of course there will be games — that’s a given — check out these cool media features instead”, Sony instead said, “of course there will be media support — that’s a given — check out these cool games instead”.

Now you have my attention.

Console Hardware Considerations
Microsoft has doubled down on Kinect, its camera-based motion gaming technology.  Many are dismissive of this, since it is ostensibly intended for casual gaming in much the same way that the Wii was.  Even so, I appreciate how impressive the technology is, so I’m not strongly against it.

What frustrated me, however, was that it became clear that Microsoft had traded some of its horsepower in order bundle this device in with every console.  (Sure, making them mandatory ensures more developer support, but this seems ham fisted in light of the concessions made.)

How so?  By all accounts, Sony has architected a state-of-the-art gaming machine, with its1.84 TFLOPS of processing power and its 8GB of ultra-fast GDDR5 (!!!) memory.  That’s not to say that Microsoft’s Xbox One will be a slouch (1.23 TFLOPS, 8GB of the slower, hotter GDDR3 memory), but these numbers are notably better for Sony.  Will this translate to any dramatic difference in graphics?  I have no idea, except to say that while cross-platform games on Xbox 360 and PS3 looked very similar, despite PS3’s mostly stronger specs, the first-party exclusives Sony enjoyed were pretty blow-away.

Now, the Xbox One will debut for $499, of course, whereas the PlayStation 4 will cost $399.  For $100 more, Xbox owners will get weaker processing and memory and a mandatory camera that the hardcore will mostly be uninterested in at best, hostile towards at worst.

The tech enthusiast in me, who craves horsepower above the still-experimental Kinect, is more inclined to embrace Sony’s vision in this scenario.

(I also find it frustrating that Microsoft did choose older, less heat efficient RAM for its new console, as mentioned above.  The net result of this is a large, boxy device that looks an awful lot like a cable box — which I guess is deliciously appropriate.  Adding further insult to injury on the aesthetics front, the Xbox One also requires an external power adapter, unbelievably, due to these thermal issues.  Just like the PS3, the PS4’s brick will be internal, where it belongs.  Stranger still, the TV functionality will require the use of a thinly-wired infrared blaster pointed at or affixed to your TV’s sensor — now we’re just getting tacky looking.)

Gamepad
I’ve long felt that the Xbox 360 controller was the best design I had ever seen, it’s horrid D-pad notwithstanding.  (I think the GameCube controller is a close second, which really pioneered the asymmetric analog stick layout and curved triggers.)  On the other side, I liked but didn’t love the PlayStation 3’s DualShock 3, which featured looser symmetric analog sticks and flat triggers, and a lighter, flimsier feel overall.  While it was awkward switching from the Xbox 360 gamepad over to the DualShock 3 at any given time, I was always able to adapt after an hour or so of gameplay, I should note.

But I have a DualShock 4 sitting next to me right now, courtesy of a local GameStop selling them way early.  I think I’ve found my new favorite controller.

This design has ergonomics in spades, feels very solid, has much tighter analog sticks (still symmetric, but that’s fine), and great curved triggers.  I haven’t picked up a Xbox One gamepad to compare, though I’ve read several comparisons that favor the DS4.  Either way, I’m very pleased with this design and won’t feel like I’m compromising on the feel of my gamepad when I play games in the future.  (For those wondering about Sony’s unexpected and, admittedly, unusual decision to include a touchpad, this is quite easy to reach.  Ergonomically, this inclusion is fine; I only hope developers will made good, appropriate use of it.)

Software
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the games.  We’ll have to ignore cross-platform AAA titles, since they essentially look and play the same across different systems, and should continue to do so in this new generation.  Instead, I’m more interested in the exclusives.

In the world of Xbox, I only ever really cared about one exclusive, which was my favorite franchise of this generation: Mass Effect.  (This series has since come to the PlayStation but the first title was solely Xbox-only for quite a while.)  Many others are in love with games like Halo, Fable, Forza, Gears of War, and so on, but these series didn’t interest me all that much.  (Halo and Gears are both first-person shooters, which I never cared that much about, Fable is a neat fantasy RPG game that just never hooked me, and Forza is a racing series — a genre I haven’t touched since the N64 days.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the Uncharted trilogy, The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Journey, inFAMOUS, and so on over on PlayStation this generation.  These aren’t casual throwaways to me, either.  I strongly feel that these are some of the finest games ever made.  Throw in the now cross-platform Mass Effect trilogy along with the Dragon Age games and Skyrim, and you have a set that I could probably play for a decade, over and over again without evening buying a PS4.

Sony’s commitment and support for indie development can’t be ignored by me either.  The mid-tier developer has all but gone extinct towards the end of the current generation, and so it will be critical to see indie releases fill in the gaps between the AAA games that will debut periodically throughout each year.  Indie games are also exceptionally well placed to do risky or avant garde things, pushing the storytelling and gameplay boundaries of what I thought was even possible in this medium.  —Seriously, go check out previews for games like The Witness.  Or over on PC, Gone Home.

Indeed, one of my all-time favorite games, Journey, is the epitome of what indie studios can do.  I was so touched, so moved, that my time with it left an indelible mark: my thoughts return to it far more often than I would have dreamed a game could elicit.  But due to the kind of audience I believe the Xbox world engenders, with its concentration on shooters and sports titles, I don’t think it would have been nearly the success on that platform as it was on the PS3.  I predict that creative, mind-expanding games like this will continue to find a welcoming home on PlayStation, whereas they will only be an afterthought on Xbox.

Microsoft has improved its relationship with indie developers in recent months (after some true horror stories), so I’m sure there will be many great titles available to both.  However, the buzz out of those studios seems strongly tilted towards PlayStation, and Sony has strongly embraced this trend.

Now you have more than my attention.  You have my business.

A Brave New World
I’ve spent a lot of time bashing the Xbox One, I’m sure it seems like.  Undoubtedly, however, it will be quite good despite my complaints, and I might even one day own it as a second console, in much the same way that I planned to own a PS4 before everything transpired this year.  And while Microsoft seems to be embracing the casuals with its Kinect and with TV integration, and Sony the gaming hardcore with its technical prowess and focus on gaming itself, I’m left with one last thought: inconceivably, I — an ardent Nintendo fan in my childhood, an avowed Sony-hater — chose PlayStation.  A teenaged version of myself would have had a hell of an argument with the current me.

P.S.  Check out Sony’s #4ThePlayers campaign, especially its “Since 1995” commercial.  I’ve never been able to say these words about this company, but Sony gets it: http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2013/10/21/playstation-4theplayers-since-1995/

Written by Michael

27 October 2013 at 11:55 pm

Misc Updates

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So, I haven’t written much lately, so I figured now would be a good time to catch up everyone who’s insane enough to read this.

PS3 Stuff
First up, some thoughts on the PS3. Magnificent piece of hardware in a lot of ways, both as a game machine and as a Blu-ray player.

Now, I already have an Xbox 360 with a large assortment of games (that are mostly owned by my brother, but he’s left them in my safekeeping while he’s away for the fall semester), and I enjoy that console tremendously. But here’s a short list of what I like more about the PS3 over the Xbox 360.

Standards Compliancy
I should say that I love Nintendo dearly (and I own the Wii, incidentally), but I’ve always detested their proprietary leanings; regrettably, Microsoft has followed the same path with the Xbox line. For instance, the charging cable for the controller on the 360 has a custom tip, and costs $19.99 MSRP — granted, it includes the battery pack, too, but the PS3 controller has a built-in battery and uses a standard mini-USB to USB connector like almost every other piece of consumer electronics does.

(Oh, but I can hear people raising concerns about what you have to do when the battery dies on the PS3 controller. So, you can actually get into it pretty easy because they use, ahem, normal screws. Unlike the Xbox 360 controller which uses custom hex screws — I know this because I wanted to get into mine to clean one of the analog sticks that was pulling hard to the left for no good reason.)

Next up, hard drives. I’ve always detested the weirdo proprietary enclosure for Xbox 360 hard drives, although you can break into them to use your own. But hot damn, Sonly allows and even encourages you to upgrade your PS3’s hard drive yourself. The bay is easily accessed, and there are tools built into the PS3 OS that allow you to back up your data externally before you move the new hard drive in. That’s pretty sexy.

Finally, the wireless situation on the 360 is criminal — $99.99 MSRP. (The PS3 contains an internal WiFi card. As does the Wii, by the way…)

Build Quality and Interface
The PS3 controller (and the console itself, too) is very, very well built. Or at least it feels that way. The feel of the analog sticks in particular is superior the Xbox 360 — though I will credit the 360 controller for having a better layout.

Moving along, I think the Cross Media Bar (XMB) is better than the Blade system on the Xbox 360. Feels snappier, doesn’t have ads on it, and is just really, really clean and easy to understand. Stuff is a bit jumbled on the 360 — granted, come November, Microsoft will overhaul the blades and I might have an entirely different view. But right now, PS3 wins that.

Oh, speaking of snappier, the PSN (PlayStation Network) feels way faster. For instance, you really don’t see the list lag on the PS3 like you do on the 360; the latter has an issue with loading more than, say, 25 items at a time on lists. Game demos is a good example: if you try to rapidly scroll through the alphabet, you’ll hit a hiccup every few seconds while the console catches up. Small nuisance, but it will get on your nerves.

Also, it seems like downloads are quicker on the PSN. (I haven’t empirically tested this, but having used both consoles to download quite a bit now, I feel pretty confident about this.) This could, of course, be a function of having less network congestion than the 360, but every PS3 owner gets the PSN for free, unlike 360 owners, who have to pay $49.99 MSRP every year for Gold membership.

Blu-ray
Okay, this is unfair. Blu-ray is, in part, a Sony technology. But it is a standard now that HD-DVD is dead. And my, is it ever a great player. The movies look fantastic, of course, on our 42″ Sharp Aquos, but the player itself is easily updated to new Blu-ray software and is pretty damn speedy.

Too Human
Moving away from the PS3 but staying on games, I’ve been playing a lot of Too Human lately. I haven’t beat it yet, but I have to say that the game review sites are being wicked unfair towards it. Besides being largely inaccurate (like when they characterize the game has having no differentiation between the different playable classes), they’ve also asked it to perform up to ridiculous expectations. I remember reading one (which may have been at 1UP) where the writer actually criticized it for not living up to the hype. Hype? Excuse me, what hype? I haven’t seen any advertising, it barely gets mention from Microsoft, and has been lambasted by everyone (including 1UP) for its poor E3 2006 showing when they had major glitches. Then we didn’t hear anything about the game from E3 2006 up until a media event in October 2007. So, what hype? If anything, it was trying to overcome all its negative publicity (which was further exacerbated by a very public lawsuit with game-website-darling Epic). But you know, who cares about whether there was hype: I want to hear about the game itself. Be objective, people.

Anyway, the game isn’t perfect. There are a number of issues that kind of bug me, and it isn’t even the small stuff that the sites got all pissy about, like the camera and the repetitive combat. Here’s what I wish the game had but doesn’t:

  • An overworld — a game that purports to be RPGish should have this. Even adventure games like Zelda make excellent use of the idea. It makes your world seem much bigger. I’d love to be able to explore Midgard, see stuff besides Aesir (which should be called Asgard, in my estimation, but I forgive you, Silicon Knights). Sure, we can have quick jumps over to the four major dungeons through the main story, but it would be great to get out and step off the plot for awhile just to see what’s out there.
  • More gameplay — I think the combat is pretty cool. I’m one of the minority who really thinks the analog-stick based combat is really, really cool. But why no puzzles? Cyberspace doesn’t count. There’s no challenge there at all. What I’m saying is that there should be different things for me to do other than mow down goblins and trolls. Think Tomb Raider (or Zelda, again), and use things like weighted floor switches, targets to shoot, etc. (More so than that platform in the Ice Forest you can shoot down. But that’s a great start. I want more of that.)
  • Quick inventory bar — so, the inventory management in Too Human works. It can be sluggish when changing pages with the bumpers, but I think the organization works. But why no quick bar to make changes on the fly? This would be great in co-op, so I don’t have to pause my end to take a quick look at a new pair of pants I found in that treasure obelisk. I’m talking like a lower-thirds bar that pushes the game screen up partway while you make some rapid adjustments. Or, conversely, a translucent overlay. Something that doesn’t take me out of the game.
  • Less linearity — this goes hand-in-hand with my overworld suggestion. I want the game to feel bigger, more epic, but the level design is mostly straightforward. I mean, you could almost put the game on rails at this point. Don’t lead me by the nose, guys.
  • More objectives — so, I think four dungeons is on the light side, but I think that could be dealt with with smaller, non-story related places to go. Mini-dungeons, if you will, a la Oblivion. I would love to wander around the overworld and stumble upon a set of ruins sticking through the snow. Oh, while I’m on that, more outdoors in general. The game is claustrophobic with keeping you indoors all the time. Yes, these places have huge scale, but they still have ceilings and are thus enclosures. Why not some outdoor fights? Lastly, I’d like to have these objectives take on a little more than kill everything in the dungeon. I realize that one of my favorite games, Zelda, is largely predicated on that idea (though it does, in fact, have puzzles, and you do have to fight specific items to not only complete those dungeons, but also accomplish stuff in future parts of the game), but let’s put some kind of other objective in. We could perhaps free some human prisoners who are being held for study by Hel, whatever. I want main-plot and sub-plot meaning.

Regardless of all that, I still think the game is great. My buddy and I have been having a blast playing the co-op, and I really like the single player campaign, too. I think the story is interesting, too, despite what the non-writers who do the game reviews think, but this is really a gameplay-centric game. Inventory management is interesting, but I think Silicon Knights (namely Denis Dyack) is stretching when it claims that this constitutes a deep RPG system.

Anyway, rent the game and play through the first couple of dungeons before you make your decision. The demo isn’t long enough to make up your mind, seriously.

-Michael

Written by Michael

26 August 2008 at 8:20 pm

Posted in News

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