…it’s always such a pleasure. And now I feel dirty. For lack of anything more insightful I’ve stooped to rolling out the most cliche of internet / gaming tropes – the Portal reference. The truth is while trying – in vain apparently – to recall what has happened since the last two weeks or so since my last post nothing terribly important comes to mind. Sure I dallied with Crysis 2 and endured to varying degrees of unpleasantness Fast Five and Thor. But all I really did that still bears any meaning was labouring through Portal 2. How lame is that? This is why these catch-up posts after periods of inactivity are so hard for me.
Twitter’s general sentiment has led me to believe that I’m not alone in shying away from Portal 2‘s co-op. For me, most my friends are on XBL and none of the friends on Steam I’d want to have such a confrontational 1-on-1 with have the game. Then there are those poor souls cutoff from the world on PSN. Shortly after release I was feeling a bit silly buying the full-priced Steam version instead of picking up the PS3 disc and redeeming a PC copy for free. Not anymore. So anyway like so many other solely single players, I’ve finished Portal 2 and just bought an iPad. Guess what happens next?
I picked up Geoff Keighley’s $2 iPad app ‘The Final Hours of Portal 2′ of course. Really I could go on and on about how those traditional publishers crying bloody murder over the declines in circulation and digitising of media could learn more than a little from this brilliant piece of digital journalism. But I won’t. Suffice to say that I think it was worth the cost – like the game itself – and while short did manage to leave me with a smile on my face afterward. The takeout I’d like to pull out form this is that Portal 2 had a surprisingly fraught development process. Gameplay / puzzle mechanics (there were no portals at one point…), sure, but mostly on the story front. The game went through a few iterations and the more I think about it that really shows in the finished product.
Spoiler alert, but the revelation that GLaDOS was once an ironically stupid human was novel enough. Novel, but not organic. Or believable. The whole thing was rushed and unbelievable. The exposition is laid out on a platter and with no subtlety at all, there’s an ‘oh no!’ moment when she – at that point in potato form – figures it out. Hours after we have, mind you. For a super-intelligent AI whose character is premised on being smart, that slow reaction wasn’t thought out properly, the fact that she was in a potato notwithstanding.
Not to turn this into a review either, but I will say the game was short, but brilliant. Just how I like them. There were moments where I was flabbergasted with the quality of storytelling and often at the same time as being blown away by what Valve still manages to squeeze out of its almost-decades old Source engine. While the telling was exceptional, the story itself was just good. Stephan Merchant’s Wheatley outshined everyone’s favourite homicidal AI and that came from behind for me.
What now for me then? Crysis 2 has failed quite miserably in keeping my interest, despite the praises I continue to sing for its predecessor. Shogun 2: Total War and Civilization V both arrived but between lapsing back into Call of Duty: Black Ops and attempting my 5th expedition into Half-Life 2 I didn’t have much time for then. And my biggest grievance after all that would be the fact that my copy of Mortal Kombat did not arrive before the very long Easter weekend (and still hasn’t arrived). Until it does turn up I’ll just drift along in this zombie-like state. Probably stopping to give Brink a go if it gets here first and maybe even accord some attention to my PSP or iPad. Too bad none of them sound terribly exciting for a mid-Friday morning with a weekend coming up.
The plan was to play through that Event Horizon-ish haunted house in space game, appropriately titled Dead Space, this month, in time for the highly-anticipated sequel Dead Space 2 on January 25th. I hate it when sequels are announced before I’ve had the chance for a proper jaunt through the original. Batman: Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 (and, hell, Mass Effect 2) are on that same list too. So, since I haven’t even started the necromorph slaughter as of writing, I wonder where does the time go?
I don’t have an answer and it’s painfully apparent that gametime isn’t the only thing that’s been bumped out of my schedule, although I am still waiting to have a second crack at that fiendish level ‘Omega’ in Super Meat Boy and my Steam account is filled with pretty things I’m convinced I won’t ever get around to playing. That’s a topic for another post though.
When I was brought into the Steam fold proper one year ago, with 2009’s ‘Early Holiday Sale’ at Thanksgiving, I went crazy with the idea of building up a massive, easy to access library of games and on the cheap. However it made me wonder; if I bought everything then, what would be left for subsequent sales?
Since then there was last year’s Christmas sale, 2010’s Easter sales and now the recently concluded ‘Give & Get’ sale. The order of these sales is to have a number of titles on sale each day, for one day only, at enormous discounts of upto 90%. It would be a fun ritual during the summer to wait until 2AM local, or whatever time the day clicked over, just to see what the deals for the next day would be. By this addictive behaviour I know find myself with a 250 game library, most of which I’ll never get to playing due to a sheer lack of time.
Now I’m realising the problem with Steam sales- they want you to buy everything. But if you do, there will be no excitement next time there’s a sale. And you won’t have time to play all you’ve bought. *sigh* I have been checking each day of these current sales to disappointment. Not because the games on sale are rubbish, but because I own them all! So didn’t really have much luck this time but hopefully fortune will shine upon me for the inevitable end of year run. I still haven’t bought Mass Effect 2 yet after all…
Steam, that digital delivery system for games from Valve that I have this curious love / hate relationship with, rolled out a new feature overnight – recommendations. Now you, and the rest of the defenceless internet, are set to be subjected to my unadulterated thoughts on games new & old and potentially in such a barrage that you’d think I was on Valve’s payroll. And hey, wouldn’t that be nice?
What I like about this system is that there is a character limit of about a 1000, which demands brevity. It also allows me to be shit lazy and not bother writing real reviews. If you’re a glutton for more punishment visit My Recommendations Page. I’ve decided to start off with two new games Steam prompted me with
Black Ops is an odd beast in that it takes steps forward and steps back from last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 2, all with the haughty confidence of a title guaranteed to ship 5 million or more without much effort. However when you have half the internet playing something online how can you pass it up?
The campaign still provides a high you just don’t get from other shooters. The story is ambitiously different, but I’m still deciding whether that difference paid off in the end. Technology wise, the game used 2008’s CoD: World at War as a codebase instead of the more recent MW2. Odd choice. It looks good, but not great.
Multiplayer is a winner for one reason: Dedicated Servers. 20-50ms pings instead of 60, 70, 80 upto 200 or so in MW2? Hell yes. So far weapons aren’t memorable like those in WaW and MW2, but we’re still in early days.
Sad that I have to mention this but hardware performance on PC is not fantastic. In fact it was practically unplayable at launch. Black Ops is too CPU intensive and if you’re not packing a Core i5 or i7, expect 2-5 second stutters, and a generally frustrating experience ahead.
Not as good as Fallout 3. That out of the way, buy this game. Fallout: New Vegas is probably the world’s most bloated expansion pack – most every asset here is recycled from its predecessor. Not to say it doesn’t excel in any areas- gunplay, writing and party interaction are all done better here. At the same time VATS, Special and general balancing are done worse.
If it weren’t for all the bugs in the game this would be easier to recommend as a follow up to 2008’s masterpiece. As it stands the game is a lot of fun, but a lot of patching is in order.
Of course if you haven’t played FO3 yet, get the GOTY of that before you try New Vegas. More content, less bugs… is there really much of a choice to make?
Whether it boils down to appeasing retailers or just criminal half-arsedness, a lot of digital storefronts are content to let themselves look stupid. I recently wrote about Steam’s Australia tax and generally clueless pricing. Today, I look at Microsoft’s offering; the newly revamped ‘Games for Windows Marketplace’ and it is no less silly.
Take a look at the above screenshot. That’s right. You can get Batman: Arkham Asylum for $49.99USD, or the Game of the Year Edition, which comes with more stuff, for $39.99. This tells me two things, first of which is that Microsoft doesn’t give enough of a shit to curate what’s chucked onto the store and check for obvious pricing curiosities like this.\
Secondly, it seems Microsoft has no interest in pricing competitively. The GOTY version of Arkham goes for $29 on Steam, arguably this service’s chief competition. It also goes for $29 on retailers like Play-Asia and considering those boxed versions come with 3D specs to boot, it’s not half bad a deal. Other titles like Age of Empires III for $39 and Fallout 3 (without any DLC- they come at the original $9.99 a piece) for $49 are terribly overpriced and handly beaten at retail and most other digital storefronts that sell them.
Speaking of Fallout, Fallout: New Vegas is nowhere to be seen. Nor are last year’s bestseller Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or current record-breaker Black Ops. That’s because these games are tied up with Steam via Steamworks. However Microsoft is cutting off its nose to spite its face here if they exclude games using Steam’s overlay and DRM- Direct2Drive learned this lesson last year and quickly added Modern Warfare 2 to its library after initially refusing to on these same grounds. What makes these notable omissions from the GFW Marketplace even more apparent though is that older instalments in each franchise are not only available, but are present on the store’s ‘Featured’ tab. Oh dear…
So what draws does Marketplace have? Daily deals for a start, but then the prices aren’t that great. Exclusive titles like Gears of War but little else- Halo and Halo 2 are inexplicably absent. Steam has auto-updates, Steamcloud and a vast library, GoG.com has its app compatibility patches and ‘no DRM’ policy and D2D has its no-nonsense approach. What does GFW Marketplace have to set it apart from the crowd? Nothing that I can think of.
I like the layout of the Games for Windows Marketplace, but entering the market now, it is essentially asking me to convert over from Steam and I think that’s how most people in a position to buy and download games online will see it too. That said, it doesn’t seem very interested in competing on price, on the strength of its library or bringing anything else to the table. I see little reason to buy into this store and Microsoft needs to step things up right quick if it doesn’t want to see this venture dift into obscurity.
Visit the [Games for Windows Marketplace] if you dare…
I’m a big fan of Steam, Valve’s digital delivery platform. For a whole bunch of reasons, it’s probably the best thing to come to PC gaming, well, ever. However there are a lot of things it does terribly poorly for a vendor of its size – things that are easier to construe as an underlying malice toward its customers. Steam pioneered digital delivery of games in a meaningful way and had to find its way as it went along. Now, however, it is the market leader with competitors like D2D and Impulse looking to it for direction. It is utterly unacceptable at this point to be clumsy, rigid or have anything but the best customer service but, I think, Steam fails shockingly on all these counts.
It starts and ends with customer service. For many people Steam Support is not something they have to often if ever deal with. And lucky them. Consensus is that Steam Support sucks. Minimum wait time for a response to a query of any kind is 24 hours. Often this response will not be helpful in the slightest, instead asking for more details or requesting you take diagnostic measures that if you wouldn’t have resorted to support if you hadn’t tried. The wait for the next reply is another day or so. Apparently this is prioritised by the nature of the query but I’ve found these timings pretty standard. However if a game isn’t allowing you to play because ‘The Steam server is not available’ or if Steam Cloud cannot sync and you’ve lost access to your game saves, this is really too long to wait.
Registration of retail CD keys is also a surprisingly flawed process. In my 3 or so years of experience with the service, I’ve had to register retail purchases with Steam because the games themselves are integrated with the service. FEAR 2, Dawn of War 2 and Aliens vs. Predator come to mind. The first two of those randomly disappeared from my account one day. On contacting support I was first told that my account had been hacked and that my password was being reset. However the login details given to me by support were for the wrong account! After I sorted that out with them (another 2 days of back and forth) I was asked to verify I owned the games by writing my name and ticket number on the actual game manual next to the CD key, photographing it and sending it through. I did that. After that though I needed retail receipts showing a purchase in the last 90 days to be scanned and sent over. I didn’t have these, and FEAR was bought a lot longer than 3 months prior. Since I couldn’t supply this, they couldn’t restore my games and I was left with the uncertain prospect of re-buying things I already owned only to wonder if this would happen again. I ended up repurchasing the titles later during a sale but the ordeal has left a sour taste in my mouth and an uncertainly in my mind about the reliability of the service.
Reliability is also called into question by regional pricing and release dates. These change almost whimsically- prices can double for a given game overnight and releases can be pushed back days even up to the point where the unlock timer reads ‘1 hour left’. Fallout: New Vegas is a current example; until last week Australians were asked to pay $49USD for the game at which point the price jumped to $89USD. US residents still get the lower price. Apart from pacifying retailers, is there any incentive for publishers to do this? Price discrepancies across regions is as common as it is baffling. For the same product with virtually no manufacturing or packaging overhead, there is no fair reason why one person in one place should pay more than any other. Although this discrimination can be blamed on the publisher, Valve is responsible for what is represented in their storefront. Surely a little consistency is in order; who wants to buy the game for almost double what it was a few days ago? Who will think that’s fair? In recent memory, as an Australian, I’ve seen this happen to Borderlands, Alien vs. Predator, Bioshock 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Darksiders, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and more- it’s not cool.
Release dates are just as finicky. I cite Fallout: New Vegas again but that game was really the last straw for this long overdue tirade. It was meant to come out last weekend. Instead, even though the pre-load is finished, it will only unlock this coming Friday. Almost a week after the same game files have unlocked for playing for Americans and a whole week after it was meant to unlock. You can always look to the publisher but couldn’t Steam admins have got the date right from the beginning? Or at least couldn’t they have noticed and made that change more than an hour before the due date? Borderlands gave me the same trouble. People are always talking about VPNs to unlock early but given Steam accounts are bannable – and with them all your games – over things like that it’s hardly worth the risk. Either way, another area in which Steam fails.
The topic of refunds and resale of your Steam property made the news this week and, although a more fundamental complaint of the service, is also a genuine problem for the prospect of Steam moving forward. Amassing a bunch of ‘licenses’ for games is great and all, but after a while the question seemingly raises itself; ‘what do I actually own’? Very little tangible, unfortunately, and that is a major turnoff about the system as it grows. A brilliant idea to immediately attach worth to that collection is the opportunity to sell it. Or at least trade it in for credit as Michael Pachter suggested with Steam taking a cut each time. Valve quickly put down these rumours but come on. How much would it have really cost them for the amount of value it’d add to customers?
These concerns niggle at all of Steam’s users and the more they use the service the more these apparently minor issues begin to matter. I haven’t extolled the reasons why Steam is a great service, and there are many. Its user base is now mostly comprised techy, savvy enthusiasts who are willing to negotiate their way around Steam’s quirks for the sake of the its strengths, but that won’t always be the case. Digital delivery will become commonplace and newcomers expecting the level of service offered elsewhere will be sorely disappointed with rust around Steam’s edges. Valve is on to a good thing, but they really need to lift their game lest these dismissible yet all-too-common grievances eventually escalate into real deal-breakers.