15. October 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Entertainment, Toys & Technology · Tags: ,

Since I haven’t been blogging much, here’s an echo of a game review for the other blog I write for.:)


Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Naughty Dog as a game development studio has been around for more than two decades now since their founding in 1986. While they’re better known for their Jak & Daxter video game series, they scored a surprise and big hit with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on the PS3 a year ago.

In order to properly appreciate what the scene was like a year ago though, one has to realize that the PS3 didn’t have very many big titles at that point, especially when compared to the XBox 360 that had already been released one year earlier, during which a number of well-received and popular titles had already been published for it.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is console-based action-adventure at its best. It has all the blockbuster production values, likable characters, amazing visuals, and all the nods to established icons of the game story’s genre . The story concerns a Nathan Drake, a (fictional) descendent of famous English explorer and privateer Sir Francis Drake of the 16th Century. The modern Drake is a treasure hunter, and in Uncharted, takes off on an expedition to recover the mythical treasure of El Dorado. Along the way, he’ll be supported by a cast of memorable characters, friends and foes alike.

What’s special about Uncharted? The visuals for one. While fans of the Metal Gear Solid series will swear that Hideo Kojima’s last magnum opus, MGS IV (with an upcoming review by GET staff Mr. Ng soon) is the most visually stunning game available on the PS3, there’re other gamers who’ll point to the year older Uncharted as an equally if not more visually impressive effort that uses fewer overheads, er, MGS IV loading times *koff*.

Simply put, Uncharted is replete with numerous moments where you’ll stare with eyes afixed at the screen taking in the visuals. Seeing what the PS3 can produce on screen will give you that sense of vindication of having spent a small fortune on a gaming console. Among especially outstanding scenes include the German U-boat run aground on a riverbed, a massive monastery that is hundreds of years old and in ruins, and a submarine pen that is a page out of a similar scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Animation was developed with the now ubiquitous mocaps, but still spendidly done nonetheless with eye, cheek movements and texture morphing on the faces.

The narrative in MGS IV is substantially stronger, with the story in Uncharted almost workmanlike. That said, the ingame story sequences in Uncharted are hugely enjoyable. They move along briskly compared to the occasionally indulgent story telling in MGS IV, with dialog that’ll make you chuckle and laugh on occasion, and carried through with a likable cast of characters. Nathan is assisted by a journalist, Elena, and a cigar-smoking companion, Victor, whose loyalties will seemingly shift in the course of the story. It’s probably a result of both the dialog script and also voice-acting that Uncharted is one game whose ingame scenes you’ll want to watch repeatedly, if only because they’re so well done and acted.

Heck. Even the characters resisting Nathan and his team’s efforts are likable. Of particular standout is the Indonesian (?) pirate Eddy Raja, voice-acted by James Sie. Sie’s comedic timing and with many of the game’s funniest lines, including a couple in what looks like Bahasa Indonesian, will have you laughing.

There’s a fair balance of platform-based and combat action in the game too. The platform based components and puzzles are pretty forgiving, so players looking for a bigger challenge would be better off with the Tomb Raider series. But they’re perfect for everyone else, including casual gamers.

The combat sequences in Uncharted don’t approach identical levels of realism or sophistication compared to some first-person shooters, but they’re still nonetheless enjoyable. Apart from four grenades, Nathan gets to carry just two guns at any one time; one side-arm and a rifle, and Nathan can only carry a limited amount of ammunition for both at a time too.

Fighting off pirates, rival treasure hunters and other critters isn’t simply an issue of charging head on too. Rather, your enemies will gun and duck for cover behind physical features of the terrain or buildings you’ll explore, and will in return typically flank or use grenades to flush you out.

Perhaps the litmus test on Uncharted’s appeal is to the untapped market segment of non-gamers. My wife for instance isn’t a computer gamer at all, but she got hooked on Uncharted’s platform scenes. She doesn’t possess much of the dexterity that PS3 gamers have when it comes to using the SIXAXIS controllers, but she enjoys having Nathan explore areas and solving puzzles on getting from one point to another.

The one down side though is the game’s comparatively short length. Experienced action game players will zip through Uncharted‘s 22 chapters (levels) in less than 10 hours. But even if one doesn’t replay the game through the different difficulty levels and bonus treasures for those who’re game completists, the 10 hours will be a tremendously fun ride.

Highly recommended for those who have PS3s.

- Dr. Foo CY, 6 Oct 2008

Well, after completing a review of Civilization IV as an education game alongside a colleague at work for the other blog I write for, I was asked to consider writing another educational game review, but this time for GTA IV. Yep, you read that right. No kidding.

This is going to be, putting it mildly, challenging. I’m not new to having to write hard sell documents. I used to write six or seven 20-30 page examination moderation reports every year to examination syndicates at Oxford and Cambridge explaining and then persuading them why students below a certain mark range should pass in a subject. But GTA IV as a learning device…! That’s going to take a lot of creativity and persuasion i.e. spin.

For those of us who’re playing GTA IV, you’d know the game is vulgar, violent, crass, full of morally corrupt characters, and very adult plot devices. Yep, all the things that make a game fun, but really not the sort of thing you’ll want your 12 year old kid to play.

Funnily, Ling has been watching me play the game one hour or so on selected evenings. She’s gotten used to the foul language, but she still sniffles whenever I (accidentally) run over a pedestrian. Or when I have to jack, whoops, ‘acquire’ someone’s car in the game to get going.

Maybe I should get one or two or my gaming students to help me in this. After all, they’re no doubt far ahead of me in GTA IV; I’m only at 52% game completion. But either way this goes, writing this review is going to be a lot of fun.:)

The game’s hero, Niko Bellic, likely before he offs some unlucky dude. Picture from Gamespot.

12. May 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Entertainment · Tags: , , ,

Here’s an interesting bit of news for MMOG researchers, watchers, and players. Source is here.

Chengdu’s Shuangliu county has arrested two virtual item and currency traders, surnamed Li and Zhang, focused on tapping out The9′s (Nasdaq: NCTY) licensed MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW), reports Chengdu Evening News. Police arrested the pair after Li reported Zhang for unfair revenue distribution. Going into business last August, the gold miners accumulated more than 20 employees with 20 computers to generate RMB 1.6 million in seven months of dealing.

How is this news of any importance or relevance? Well, MMOG players either really hate and downright resent gold farming, or they’re neutral – the latter especially so if they’ve bought virtual currency before. Either way, gold farming has resulted in large discussion threads in MMOG forums and headaches for gamemasters who have to respond to petitions from irate players complaining about how some player is running a script around a zone harvesting resources.

I remember for certain the news threads 4-5 years ago on the EverQuest 2 forums; there were huge complaints against these botters with suspicion typically heaped towards the Chinese from players. Several players sent petitions, others tried all sorts of ways to disrupt the automated scripts in which the botters were using to harvest resources in the zone.

What’s especially interesting is that the Chinese police has taken action against the above WOW gold farmers. It’s not specifically mentioned in the original source if they’d taken action on instigation from Blizzard Entertainment, but it’s unusual nonetheless. The net of police-actionable activities on one’s virtual behavior in MMOGs is clearly growing larger.

(Picture from http://www.freakygaming.com/)

blog-2008-Rivervale-DSC_0892-GTA4.jpgThere were more than a few Singaporeans who scoffed when MDA announced the new game rating system in Singapore; after all, they’ve been getting their fix of ‘disallowed’ games in Singapore through a variety of means, including from our neighbors up North, and – if they knew where to find it – certain temporary shops in the heartland area.

Funnily, I was one of the Singaporeans who was actually happy with the new system, since it meant that games that weren’t previously available could now finally be bought here. And what better game to celebrate that with than gaming’s arguably most hyped, and definitely the most expensive, game ever – GTA IV?

This game has special meaning for me for two reasons: firstly, it was Matt who introduced me to this series what 6-7 years ago with GTA III. Secondly, a colleague at work was one of the designers on the game before moving to Singapore.

As for the game itself, it’s possibly the best example of single-player sandbox styled gaming, or in layman’s terms, a game that is open-ended and doesn’t require players to rigidly follow a well-defined path to game victory. It’s also lived up to its massive hype, with critical acclaim coming from all review sites. One source even notes that at 609,000 copies sold on day 1, GTA IV is now the fastest selling game title within a 24 hour period in the UK.

That said, the game is marked for adult players only and it means just that, and it isn’t just the language spoken by characters in the game. The themes of gangland wars, racism, drug wars, prostitution, crooked cops, and politics Americana provide quite a reflection and social commentary of the type of life that exists in some parts of the civilized world that until the GTA series had been largely seen only in non-interactive media. Sure, the game is unflinching in its representations of brutality, but its tie-in with story telling is intricate, and I’ve never felt in the 20+ hours I’ve played so far that some act of violence is there only for its sake.

Eh – since I have a colleague who was in the development team for it, I should get him to autograph my copy of the game.:)

blog-character.jpgIf you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, here’s an interesting link that’s worth a visit. Based on your responses to a very long list of questions, you’ll get a detailed report on the level, character class and alignment that you best fit into. It’s a pretty long list of questions, but well worth the 15 minutes effort.

Here’s my result.:)

I Am A: Lawful Neutral Human Wizard/Cleric (3rd/2nd Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength-12
Dexterity-14
Constitution-11
Intelligence-17

Wisdom-16
Charisma-12

Alignment:
Lawful Neutral A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs him. Order and organization are paramount to him. He may believe in personal order and live by a code or standard, or he may believe in order for all and favor a strong, organized government. Lawful neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you are reliable and honorable without being a zealot. However, lawful neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it seeks to eliminate all freedom, choice, and diversity in society.

Race:
Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Primary Class:
Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard’s strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

Secondary Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron’s vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity’s domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric’s Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

One of the most delightful movies about marriage of recent years, and the moreso as it deals with a topic that didn’t get much attention then, is Meet the Parents, starring Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller. The story there revolves around an engaged couple with Ben Stiller starring as the nervous fiance who has to meet his fiancee’s parents, and Bob De Niro playing an almost impossible-to-please potential father-in-law who just so happens to be a highly experienced if recently retired CIA agent trained in espionage.

blog-wow.jpgTruth to tell, I’m not big on meeting parents myself, and these days, it’s oriented around meeting the parents of my students. Come to think of it, if the students had a say in it, they wouldn’t want their parents to meet their teachers either! The problem typically begins when the student hasn’t done too well. That’s when parents ask some of the toughest questions about their kids, as it becomes a toss-up between these two rules:

  • “Be honest with the parents.”
  • “Be sympathetic to the student.”

And that’s where the problem lies, because while those two rules aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s not easy to straddle between the two, and deliver the package in as diplomatic a fashion as one can.

I gave a lecture on gaming addiction during the recent Parents’ Seminar held at my faculty last weekend, and several parents approached thereafter to follow up on further queries. Now that was quite a situation, as while the amount of hours kids can spend on say World of Warcraft is no laughing matter, I can on the other hand also empathize with how difficult it is to wean oneself off those games. And that’s come about largely from my perspective of having established and run raiding guilds in these games. Involvement in a high-level and/or raiding guild isn’t a trivial matter, and exacting in both social and competitive expectations when it comes to participation and administration. And I’m positively certain my Missouri bud, Matt, will back me up on this! The stories we could tell about running guilds over the years…

Moreover, there’s also this little contradiction in terms: how do you advise parents on their kids playing games when they’re studying in a course that encourages its students to play games? OK, so there’s a qualifier in the latter: the course encourages students to play a variety of games. But then again, one could say that’s splitting hairs.

That said, it’s easy to meet parents whose son or daughter have done well. Heck, it’s immense joy even. The parents beam with pride, the kids glow, and you feel good. Like say for this girl in one of my classes who while isn’t the top performer in her class, has tried very hard and done well still. One of my colleagues at the faculty, has another perspective of meeting parents, and her entry is a heartfelt read.

One of those little nagging things about lecturing in a Gaming course is that I’ve always felt a little left out when my students rave about the newest console title. I mean, so many of them tote around PSPs to school it’s scary.

blog-2007-Rivervale-CIMG2897-ps3-ling.jpgMy parents got my two brothers and myself an Apple II computer in 1983, and while both my elder brother and myself got into computer games from that point, I was also altogether interested in the creation of games through writing programs.

From that point, I’ve chalked up about 24 years of computer gaming but very little on consoles, despite my good bud Matt’s best attempts to get me to at least take a look at consoles.

That said, the nagging feeling that I could be missing out got to me eventually, and a fortnight ago I started seriously looking deciding whether to get an XBox360, a PS3, or a Wii. All three have their advantages and appeal, but I decided on the PS3. I figured that if the console gaming didn’t appeal as much as PC gaming, at least we’d have a Blu-Ray high-definition player.

The Blu-Ray player didn’t disappoint. The first title we got – Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of his movie Kingdom of Heaven looked so splendid on high-def that Ling actually enjoyed the viewing much more than the two times we watched it on the big screen and on DVD later.

As for the collaborative gaming with wife-thingie itself, well, the picture here says it all. Ling’s never quite played games before; my few attempts to get her interested in PC gaming failed so badly I gave up. But now she’s gotten into Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and enjoying it that I cannot but help feel satisfied at this small achievement. Oh, she still gets me to go through the combat portions for her, but she’s handling all the platform and adventuring aspects of it.

Pigs can fly, indeed.:)