June 26, 2013

Head in the Clouds

The Xbox One train wreck has finally ground to a slow, agonizing halt -- and not a moment too soon, as it seems Microsoft was running out of fans to throw onto the tracks. However, as if all memory of the incident has been blocked out by mental trauma, some of the survivors are already dusting themselves off and lining up to purchase their next ticket to ride.

"Why would you get back on that train?" any sensible person might ask. "There's a much safer train over here -- one with a less homicidal conductor. It's a faster, more powerful vehicle, and the tickets cost $100 less, to boot!"

Microsoft has already conditioned their minds against this kind of critical thinkng, though. For you see, it is believed by these unfortunate folk that Microsoft's latest invention will lift them off the rails of reality itself, and into the very clouds!

There's a ridiculous amount of hype going on right now, at least among die-hard Microsoft fans, about the Xbox One using "cloud computing" to "offload processes" and perform dazzling feats that your individual console wouldn't be able to do on its own. Bigger online worlds, and better graphics, are some of the vague promises Microsoft and various twinkling-eyed dreamers are dribbling over. The basic idea is that your game console will be communicating via the internet with distant servers, and having them do some of the computing grunt work for you so that your system can get back to more important things... like, I don't know, keeping tabs on fantasy football scores and streaming reruns of The Price is Right. How much additional graphical "oomph" does this theoretical gimmick really afford the XBO? No one can really say. There's not been any concrete display of this technology functioning in any games yet. Microsoft just wants to plant the idea in your head, because -- while the PS4 will factually have more powerful hardware -- the Xbox One will be fictionally more powerful, through the magic of cyberspace! What's next, blast processing?

I'm not saying that cloud computing as a concept is impossible, but consider the examples of some heavily online-dependent games we've seen so far. There's Diablo III, and the latest Sim City, both of which require a constant online connection to function, even in single-player mode. Both are infamous for server crashes and malfunctions which rendered them inaccessible at launch and beyond. And these aren't small, start-up indie companies, either -- this is Blizzard and EA we're talking about here.

Have you ever played an MMORPG for any length of time? Nearly every MMO that ever came into existence has had a pretty rocky launch -- rife with shoddy connections, server crashes and capacity overloads. And further down the road, servers routinely are taken down for maintenance on a weekly basis, even when they're working perfectly (which they don't always). I hope you're looking forward to dealing with such frustrations for every video game, from now on!

The closest thing to a "cloud gaming" service we've seen so far is OnLive, which by all accounts is far from revolutionary. For a monthly fee, you can purchase games to have them rendered on their end and "streamed" to your system, essentially like a video. It's a cool enough concept, and lets you "play" games with graphics beyond what under-powered hardware might ordinarily be capable of, but it's not as if your hardware is really working in cooperation with theirs. It's a far cry from what Microsoft is proposing, where whatever computing gets done on their servers still has to be rendered finally on your $500+ new console.

I realize these scenarios aren't exactly the same thing, but at least these are realistic considerations to take into account. If nothing else, they serve to remind us that we can't just lean on online infrastructures as a crutch for every single gaming application. The internet is not perfect. It doesn't work the way it should 100% of the time, and when your connection has a hiccup, get ready for any game reliant on "cloud computing" to lag or die on you. Hell, never mind complex next-gen gaming computations being calculated off-site and sent back to me at instantaneously -- sometimes I can't get a text e-mail right away, or even a phone call. When every online infrastructure we've ever invented has been proven to be unreliable, why would you put so much faith in Microsoft's "cloud gaming" promises?

Sony is looking into similar technology with their Gaikai service on PS4, aimed to go online in 2014. Details are sparse, though apparently it is being intended for uses that aim a little closer to practical reality -- the availability of PS1, PS2, and PS3 titles, primarily. There hasn't been much in the way of hype and pie-in-the-sky promises for what exactly will be on offer, but at least it sounds like something feasible. It's not being pushed as a leg of the PS4's "true" processing power, but it certainly has the potential to be expanded upon in future to enhance next-gen gaming, if that becomes a reality. Of course, Xbox fans refuse to acknowledge Sony's Gaikai as being at all capable of doing anything similar to Microsoft's "cloud" -- even though no one currently has any idea what either service can actually do.

When it comes down to it, you have to base your purchasing decisions on something. Do you want to base them on facts about tangible hardware specs, and real games and policies? Or do you want to blow your fortune on an advance ticket for the train to Cloud City, a place we've only heard about in legend?

June 24, 2013

Two Souls, One Face?

A curious situation has come up, regarding Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last of Us. One of its central characters, Ellie, bears a suspicious resemblance to actress Ellen Page. The character in question originally looked quite a bit more like her, though she eventually underwent some minor visual changes in an attempt to distance her from the actress a bit. Interestingly, Ellen Page had no part in the role, though she does star as the character Jodie in the upcoming game, Beyond: Two Souls.

Here are some image comparisons, to consider:

It made the rounds of the gaming news recently, because of an off-the-cuff comment Ellen Page made on Reddit: "I guess I should be flattered that they ripped off my likeness, but I am actually acting in a video game called Beyond Two Souls, so it was not appreciated."

Those are the facts. In and of itself, there's nothing particularly scandalous or controversial about it, at least in my eyes -- but it does raise some open questions. What is a person's "likeness," and what rights do they have over its use? Surely, it seems like common sense to say that Naughty Dog should have asked her permission to use her face for their character. But, how do you demonstrate concretely that it is her face? Ellen Page comes to mind because she is a famous Hollywood actress, and happens to be appearing in another video game set to release in the near future. However, there are probably hundreds of unknowns out there who could similarly be mistaken for Ellen Page, or either of the two characters inspired by her appearance. I don't think she could make a legal case out of the issue -- nor do I believe she is interested in doing so -- but is there a moral dilemma here?

Ellen Page didn't create her own face. It's not her intellectual property, nor are the faces of any number of other women who might happen to look extraordinarily like her. A number of comments I've seen suggest that she has a somewhat "generic" or "forgettable" face. That may or may not be the case, and is rather beside the point, but maybe it's not a trivial consideration. At least, she doesn't have any rare, distinguishing features or telltale marks. She hasn't got Liam Neeson's nose or Tommy Flanagan's scars, anyhow. I'm sure avid fans of hers, or people who know her personally, could spot her a mile away -- but to the general public or casual moviegoers, it's not so obvious. We might not have seen these resemblances unless we had photos like the ones above shown to us side-by-side.

Also, to put things more in perspective, Ellie in The Last of Us more resembles a younger Ellen Page than the modern-day actress. Ms. Page may have youthful features, but she is a grown woman in her mid-twenties, whereas the Ellie character is clearly a young child. And it does no good to point out that the original design for the character resembled the actress more, because then you're talking about inspirations, and not any tangible product.

This is far from the first time something like this has happened, either. Remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? Remember Gray Edwards?

All I remember thinking is "Why is Alec Baldwin's voice coming out of Ben Affleck?" Similarly to the Ellen Page situation, you could argue that resemblances to Affleck here were coincidental. Okay, I would have to roll my eyes at that, but how would one prove it?

Well, whatever the truth of it is, from what I hear The Last of Us is a pretty dynamite game. People may be mistakenly attributing the character to Ellen Page, but it doesn't seem to be doing her image any harm. If anything, it's putting the actress on the map for those of us who couldn't quite remember who she is. I sure know her face now, I can tell you that.

Out of Tune

Perhaps you've seen this ad, or one like it, popping up around Facebook or other places online. It's for Wartune, a browser-based game which supposedly spans city-building, PvP, and RPG gameplay. I haven't touched it, mainly because browser games just give off a skeazy, low-quality vibe which their promotional materials do nothing to contradict.

Below is one such ad. Let us count the ways it utterly repulses:

Living Myth - Wartune Ad

1) Outright Plagiarism
This is artwork of the goddess Sillia, a character from the Korean MMORPG Forsaken World. No, the character is not affiliated with Wartune in any way. A lot of Wartune ads seem to display scantily-clad, vaguely-fantastical ladies ripped from various other games. There have been accusations that these ads are using images from League of Legends, as well. Does the actual game not have any of its own character art, which they might have used? Why must they steal from other games?

2) "No Children Allowed"
Ooooh, what manner of forbidden delights might one find within this risqué realm of debauchery? Let us peer into this decadent hive of adult pleasures:

Whoop dee doo. I am stimulated beyond compare.

If a game wants to advertise itself as a sexy, adult-oriented environment, fine -- but if it's unable to do so using its own assets, and it turns out to be this, what's the point?

3) "Male Gamers Only"
Let me tell you a little secret about gender and marketing, here. When you advertise "Ladies Night" on the front of your club, you might get more females to show up if they get free cover or some kind of deal on drinks -- but in addition, you will get more paying males to show up, because they want to meet ladies. Suppose you put "Males Only" on the front of your bar. What do you suppose will happen?

So, is Wartune the "gay bar" of browser games? I doubt it. What I assume they're going for are the stereotypical "hardcore" gamers, who are supposedly a males-only bunch, last time I asked 1987. Ironically, when I find out a game is trying to have a "males only" user base, it only drives me away -- and I am a male gamer. I just want to play a cool video game -- I don't go out of my way to play a game with only males. Does anyone?

4) "Once you're inside your friend won't be seeing much of you!"
First, I don't know how much this "Prepare to be addicted to this life-consuming game" line really fools people, or even sounds appealing anymore. It's the kind of thing people say in retrospect of a game they've already enjoyed, or at least to something they're already looking forward to immensely. It's not something people really look for, in and of itself. Like, "Yes! I don't want a well-paced, exciting game. I want a 100-hour, grind-heavy slog."

Second, my "friend"? As in, singular? Thanks for implying that I only have one friend, Wartune -- you just made one less.

5) The Logo
Nothing especially wrong here, but it's worth mentioning that it's likely the only non-plagiarised image on display. It's also the only thing that really has anything to do with their game -- and it's so small, you can barely read it.

From the ad itself, I had literally no idea what the game was even supposed to be about, or even what genre it was. It utterly fails to inform, impress, or inspire curiosity. Try harder next time, guys.

June 23, 2013

Light Bringer: Hyperion

When I first discovered Light Bringer, they immediately became one of my favourite Japanese metal bands. And then they were one of my favourite metal bands. And finally, one of my favourite bands, period. That all took about a day or so.

The stars alligned perfectly: hyperactive power metal with regular progressive and neo-classical flourishes; virtuosic guitar and keyboard solos; and an angelic voice carrying achingly sincere, operatic melodies. This is definitively my kind of music, trained on with expert precision.

It's not unusual to find a new band, get over-excited about how new and wonderful they are, and gradually lose some of that original enthusiasm as the years go by. Often, it's a case of a group rapidly becoming less like themselves, and more like everyone else -- or the original novelty wears off, and it seems like each album is just more of the same. I'm so happy I can say with confidence that this is not happening with Light Bringer. Their latest album Scenes of Infinity, is definitely as fresh and fun as ever, the instrumentals are urgent and powerful, and this might be vocalist Fuki's best and brightest effort yet.

Xbox 180