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July 27, 2010

Not What It Cracked Up To USB

As I was running Zelda back to the vet's to have stitches taken out of her side this morning, I had a later start than usual, so I decided to play some Transformers: War for Cybertron and see whether my Xbox 360 was still in an argumentative mood.

Three lock-ups (one while the game was still loading the multiplayer lobby) and a red light error message (code E 79) in the space of ten minutes gave me my answer.

I did a smattering of homework, and discovered that the E 79 code indicates a problem with the Xbox's hard disk drive. Some folks over on the Xbox World forums suggested playing without it. This evening, I shifted some data from the hard drive over to a USB stick I keep handy, removed the hard disk and joined a session of War for Cybertron's Escalation mode.

I managed to get as far as Wave 6 before Vickie served dinner, but it certainly didn't crash. Still, I did get twice as far before a console freeze not long ago.

Anyway, I started thinking: If my console's issue relates to the hard disk drive, maybe I can circumvent it by taking the drive out and using a USB-based external storage unit. The Rooster Teeth guys did some tests back when Microsoft released the update allowing Xbox 360s to read and write to USB sticks back in April, and they seemed pretty pleased with the performance of USB drives with the 360. On top of that, a 500GB drive only costs around $150, giving me twice the 360 Slim's storage for a whole lot less cash.

Then I did some more homework, and was reminded that the maximum space an Xbox 360 will let me use on any USB drive is 16GB (which Geoff of Rooster Teeth actually mentions fairly early in the video of the aforementioned tests). Although 16GB USB sticks only cost $30 I'd still be in a worse situation than I am now, and if my 360 does fail permanently (as the folks on the Xbox World forums contend), I'll be left with $30 of USB stick I otherwise wouldn't really need.

You know, I was warming to the idea of a USB external hard drive. At its core, the Xbox 360 Slim doesn't really do anyting my current console doesn't do already: While our TV is HDMI-capable, I'd only really be reducing the overall cable count by one; speaking of cables, I already use a network cable to connect my 360 to the Internet, so the inbuilt WiFi module is redundant. There's the romantic idea of keeping the old kit going against all odds. FInally, there's the advantage of saving a few hundred dollars!

On the other hand, I've chafed at the limits of my 360's 20GB hard drive before; having 250GB would allow me to install more games to the hard drive (I can only get away with one at the moment) and even buy the odd Game on Demand. I've also been told that video through HDMI is of better quality than that sent through component AV cables. Last but by no means least, there's the highly-gratifying thought of having an Xbox 360 that not only takes up less shelf space and looks prettier but also works properly.

Still, I have at least a month to make my mind up, which is enough time to get this refinancing jazz sorted out. In that time I'll keep using my current USB stick for the moment; I'm interested to see how it works out.

July 25, 2010

Is An Xbox 360 Slim The Solution?

FYI, this is cross-posted from here and here; I want to maximise its exposure, especially as my 360 just locked up for the third time in forty-five minutes.

Well, I just got up and walked away from my Xbox 360 after it locked up twice in the space of ten minutes while playing Transformers: War for Cybertron. I don't get an error message or a red light; it just freezes in the middle of a game and the only button presses it recognises are the tray button and the power switch.

FYI, I bought my 360 in April / May 2007 and it's a pre-HDMI 20GB HDD unit. It's been doing this intermittently since sometime last year, and only when playing certain games, like Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, TF:WFC and (I think) Bayonetta. Halo 3 never gives it any trouble, funnily enough, and I don't remember any lock-ups during Gears of War 1 or 2.

I'd flirted with the idea of getting a Slim when it came out, but decided that prettier looks and quieter fans weren't a reason for me to buy what I already had over again, especially as I couldn't afford it. However, I'm going to be coming into some cash fairly soon and this locking-up business is really starting to nark me.

What's made the idea even more tempting is the just-announced Halo: Reach console bundle. I already have Reach on pre-order at GAME (AU$30 paid off so far), and the idea of getting a new console, the game, two controllers and a wireless headset for only AU$100 more than the console, one controller and a wired headset is really starting to look like a good idea. But I want to check with you gamers in my readership, especially those of you who've already bought a 360 Slim.

Have you had freezing trouble with your Slim? Do you know anyone who has?

July 19, 2010

What I Want From My PC

After yesterday's whinge-athon about my PC woes, I told myself “harden up, Princess” and decided to start the search for better more appropriately. Here’s what I want to do on my computer and which OSes I’m using to do these things with right now:

  • Write. (Linux Mint)
    • Articles.
    • Short stories.
    • Novels.
    • Web log posts.
  • Call folks via Skype. (WinXP)
  • Browse the web. (Linux Mint)
  • Back my Motorola RAZRv9 phone up. (WinXP)
    • Sync it with a contact list that my e-mail client can access. (Not happening now.)
  • Download, process and archive e-mail. (Linux Mint)
  • Maintain a music and podcast library synced with my iPod nano. (WinXP)
  • Print to and accept scans and faxes from a Brother MFC-465CN printer (ideally across a wireless network). (WinXP)

Bonuses:

  • Play games. (WinXP)
  • Be portable.

I’m after an “at my fingertips” computing experience, where everything I want to do is a handful of clicks and a smattering of seconds away at any given moment. To me, this tends to rule Linux out; I might be willing to do some initial configuration at the start but I’m not interested in being a power user, fiddling with dual-boots or emulation or any such, which if I want to hang onto my game library would seem to rule out a Mac.

Someone pointed out the Alienware m11x gaming laptop yesterday; at under $1,500 for a pretty beefy base configuration and with a funky design and support by Dell, it's looking extremely tempting.

What do you folks think?

July 18, 2010

I Just Want My PC To Work

A little while ago, I wrote about how I'd chucked my Grand Idea of starting my own business doing PC support, and I'm ever more convinced that I made the right decision.

At the moment, I've got a Windows XP / Linux Mint dual-boot set-up. By default my PC starts up under Linux Mint, and it's pretty good. It does the basics well; I surf the web, I organise my e-mail and I write.

But there are certain things I still can't do under Mint:

  • Online, some web applications refuse to work. The one Facebook game I play, Bejewelled Blitz, stutters while it's running, which is no end of frustrating.
  • We have a Brother printer connected directly to our network. Mint can't see it by default and the last time I tried to set it up under my previous flavour of Linux, Ubuntu, the end result was an error message whenever I tried to do a software update.
  • While there are applications that will work with my iPod, like Rhythmbox, I still feel as though getting them to do what iTunes does by default, especially with regard to podcasts and playlists, takes too much fiddling.
  • As far as I can see there's no Linux-based software that I can use to back-up or synchronise my Motorola RAZR mobile phone with some kind of centralised address book.
  • The games I own and enjoy playing, not to mention the ones that my friends play, are Windows games; the digital game store Steam may have bridged the Windows-Mac divide but I've not caught wind of any plans for a Linux client yet.

While I'd go back to Windows XP, I have some issues there as well. The biggest is a recurring bug that has defeated all attempts, including several from-scratch rebuilds of the hard drive over the last couple of years, to erase it. No matter which browser I use, something happens intermittently when I attempt to get to any web site; the browser will either load a single graphic from the page and nothing else, load the site's base HTML code instead of the site proper or even tell me it couldn't reach a website other than the one I was trying to get to.

Dovetailing with this is the dawning realisation that I'm getting annoyed with being tethered to a desktop. I like the idea of being able to sit down and fiddle with my computer whenever I want to, without having to make a point of coming out to the front room (which, in summer, is the hottest room in the house) to write.

I've realised that it's not just a matter of having as few excuses for procrastination as possible, but also of actually having some positive reinforcement; if I like to play with a gadget, then I'm more likely to have it around (and know how to use it) when I have a practical need for it.

Over the last few weeks, we've been discussing refinancing our loan with a gent from a bank. If we can get a low enough rate, we're thinking of getting some more renovation work done, but I'm also starting to think about how we can rectify our computing situation. The screen on Vickie's laptop died a while ago, and I'm debating whether to take it in for repairs or get something new for her; either way, given Vickie's ongoing frustrations with running Vista on her machine and the grief XP has given me over the past few, I'm thinking Windows 7 isn't a bad move for either of us.

Now, I'm willing to consider my options. There's a big community of Linux users out there who are willing to help out, one that I've not dabbled in all that often; a couple of my good mates are also keen Linux users (one of them actually hipped me to Mint). So I think I'll check in with them before I splash out.

Even so, I'm not interested in a lot of fiddling or configuration or becoming a Linux Power User or any such. I'm now more keen on having something that Just Works Out Of The Box. I want the end result of all of this to be a computer that I enjoy using and that simply does what I want it to without dual-boots or emulation or any real technical complexity. I'm over the idea of being on the cutting edge or getting into the guts of computing; I want a computer that just works.

July 11, 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron Expanded Review

This is sort of an expanded edition of my review of Transformers: War for Cybertron for the Cairns Post, compiled from the 500-word version of that review and various forum posts I've made in the meantime.

Keeping in mind that I wrote that review so as many readers as possible would understand it, let me expand for all you pro gamers out there. For starters, don't buy it expecting anything earthshaking or revolutionary. High Moon set out to make a Transformers game that works, and they've succeeded. It mightn't be an outstanding experience but it's certainly a solid one, which puts it head and shoulders above the two movie games.

You'll probably see a lot that's familiar. Base gameplay is reminiscent of Gears of War, minus the cover system. Campaign battles go in for quantity of enemies over smart AI; things can get a bit repetitive and frustrating, especially the campaign-ending boss battles (for which the winning strategy seems to be "run like hell and hope your computer allies don't get in your way"). Still, I found I did better once I remembered the two special abilities each character gets. The whole thing was pretty fun, although I doubt I'll play it again unless it's co-op with someone.

Transformation effectively gives every character a Ghost from Halo 3 on-tap; cars, trucks and tanks all hover (although the cars and trucks drop to their wheels when boosting) and all jets can stop midair without dropping out of the sky (and hover up and down if you remember, which I don't most of the time). If you were expecting the game to switch from Gears of War to, say, Blur or Heroes Over Europe when you transformed, you'll be disappointed, but on its own gameplay merits it works great.

What will keep you going through the campaign itself is its flavour. It's a big, loud, heart-on-its-sleeve paean to those Transformers cartoons that geeks like me who were born in the mid- to late-seventies grew up with and makes no apologies for it. All the characters are larger than life and you'll probably keep grinding through the frustrating bits just to hear what Optimus, Megatron, Starscream, Sideswipe, Soundwave or Warpath will say next. All the leads are presented pretty much as we know them from the Good Old Days, and as that lets Peter Cullen do his nobly resonant thing for Optimus without interference, it's no real problem.

Yet I still feel let down by the game's plot. In several interviews before War for Cybertron's release, lead designer Matt Tieger talked the character arcs of Optimus, Megatron and Starscream up a lot, with particular emphasis on how Optimus would develop from a warrior unsure of his place into the Prime we all know and love by the end of the game. The plot instead drops a handful of hints of back-story - a betrayal that led to Starscream being posted to the orbital platform where we find him; Megatron calling Optimus "the prodigy"; Optimus' reference to something that happened in both of their pasts "long ago" - and then frustrates by leaving them where they fell and ignoring them.

The campaign tries to make up for it with plenty of nuggets of fan service (like the Universal Greeting), but it still left me with a "cut for time" aftertaste; not as sour as the one Gears of War 2 gave me (the Sires, Maria Santiago, the Locust Queen and the bit right at the end), but still there.

Unfortunately, there's no Optimus vs. Megatron showdown either.

But there is Multiplayer. Escalation is the obligatory Nazi Zombies mode, where you control the characters from the campaign fighting off hordes of the opposing side. The game ships with two maps, and picking a map determines whether you're Autobots fighting off Decepticons or vice versa. You can't set difficulty and playing it solo is nigh impossible, but unlike my other favourite co-op mode, Halo 3: ODST's Firefight, matchmaking options are available and all public matches are drop-in. Being able to open the map up as you go is a neat concept.

You've seen the traditional versus modes before, but transforming definitely gives this game a whole vibe of its own. As the Penny Arcade lads pointed out, you never have to wait at a vehicle spawn point, but then you can't ride shotgun or take the turret either.

Layered over all this is a tasty combination of Team Fortress 2's classes with Modern Warfare's kill-streaks, experience and challenges, although the customisation options aren't as deep (or intimidating) as Modern Warfare 2. And I'd much rather play this over Team Fortress 2 or Modern Warfare 2.

It might even make me split my attention from Halo: Reach, especially as hearing Optimus Prime say, “Autobots win the match!” is as thrilling as hearing Jeff Steitzer (the Halo multiplayer announcer) say, “Killtacular!”

Oh, one other point of note: The default mapping of “transform” to the left stick click results in some accidental transformations, but watch out in Multiplayer; there's actually a Leader class special ability which forces you to switch modes and freezes you post-switch for a few seconds. So it may not necessarily be you!

Thus far, my experience of the playing crowd is the opposite of that on the major shooters; they're very, very quiet. No swearing or slurs, but also no call-outs or tactical discussion. Even the noisy idiots are milder than the average voice-jerk on Halo 3.

July 08, 2010

Transformers: War for Cybertron

If you've already read this in today's paper, I'd like to point out that I gave it 3 1/2 stars (the sub-editor must've rounded it up) and that the actual recommended retail price is $79.95, not $109.95 (if it were the latter price I wouldn't have given it more than three stars).

But if you haven't, go buy today's Cairns Post and check out Page 14 of the timeOUT liftout. Or read it on the cairns.com.au website!

Oh, and BUY THE GAME!

Then come play some Escalation with me!

P.S.: Yes, two published game reviews in a week. The Games Guru is on a roll!

July 06, 2010

Metro: 2033

I think this is the first negative review of a game I've written. I tell you what, it's not something I liked doing. There was quite a bit I liked about Metro 2033; it oozed character and its Russian development brought a refreshingly different perspective to gaming.

You could argue that this post-apocalyptic game just wasn't my taste. My usual fare - Halo, Mass Effect, Burnout Paradise, the Guitar Hero games - are pretty cheerful, after all.

Still, in the end, I just couldn't get into Metro 2033. And I'm not alone; the entertainment editor, Jesse Kuch, also received a copy and came away with largely the same impression I did.

You can read our thoughts here. As usual, you'll need Adobe Reader to view this PDF document.