Monday, May 23, 2011

Thoughts on the PSN Debacle.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two months, you’ve likely heard a thing or two about the PlayStation Network outage.   The PlayStation Network is a group of services used primarily in conjunction with the PlayStation 3.  Services include online play, social networking, and access to the PlayStation Store, an online marketplace for a variety of digital content, such as movies and games.  In other words, it’s very similar to Xbox Live.  In late April (the 19th, I believe), Sony took the network down unexpectedly.  Customers wondered what was going on, until a few days later, Sony informed customers that the network had been hacked, and that the culprit(s) had made off with personal information from all 70+ million PSN accounts.  By personal information, they meant PSN login credentials (email and password), billing information such as address and full name, birthday, and credit card number.

When this was revealed, the incident ballooned into quite a fiasco.  Such a huge case of identity theft (we’re talking dozens of millions of people here) attracted not only the attention of a legion of journalists, both inside and outside of the industry, but also governments; Congress, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security all got involved, as did the Japanese and UK governments.  To say it was a PR disaster for Sony might be an understatement, and overall it will remain a significant blow to the PlayStation brand in general, like the Xbox 360 will always have that nagging stigma that came with the console’s notoriously low reliability, exemplified by the Red Ring of Death and E74 errors.  To throw salt in the wound, soon after, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), who handles online games like Everquest and DC Universe Online, announced that they two had been hacked, bringing the total number of pilfered accounts up to over 100 million.

The point of this post is to address a couple things I’ve been hearing people spout.  It’s not about whether I support Sony or not, it’s about keeping certain things in perspective.  First, some background.  I will admit right now that I am probably a little biased for Sony, simply because the incident had minimal negative effect on me.  I also never really made extensive use of PSN.  I don’t play online often or do a lot of messaging or chat, and as neat as I think it is, I almost never use Home.  The only services I use are Trophies and the PlayStation Store, the latter of which I visited regularly to get new content.  Now, there are four things that seem to be a point of contention for people:
1.     Sony allowed themselves to be hacked.
2.     They waited as long as they did to tell people they had been hacked.
3.     Sony being hacked has compromised their information, forcing consumers to take extra steps on their own to protect themselves.
4.     The outage has resulted in people being unable to use services that they are subscribed to and possibly paying for.

I’ll tackle number one first, which will be easy.  Anyone who is truly angry about this does not understand the age we live in.  Sony could have had the most complex, the most sophisticated, and the most cutting edge security on the planet.  If someone with sufficient motivation and skill had wanted to hack them, they could and would have.  Such is the nature of everything man-made in this world.  If human hands can build it, human hands can destroy it.  It’s still their responsibility to make the utmost effort to protect user data—and some would argue they didn’t, but that’s an argument for another day—but things like this are never outside the realm of possibility.  As I’ve said to others: “Shit happens.”

I’ll next discuss the third one, as that’s the one I believe people have really blown out of proportion.  First of all, most of the aforementioned information hackers stole is really not all that private.  Just because you don’t necessarily walk down the street trumpeting it to the world doesn’t mean it’s private.  It would not have taken hacking PSN for someone of the hacker(s) skills to piece together your birthday, address, and name.  And your login credentials can—and must, as mandated by the 3.61 firmware update for PS3—be changed.  The only lingering concern is for those who have a tendency to use the same password for multiple things; it’s foolhardy, but I’m very guilty of it as well.  So then change them, too.  If you’re so concerned about your information, it shouldn’t be a big deal, as periodically changing your password (especially for important accounts) is a good security precaution anyway.

The biggie is of course the credit card information.  But why?  Is it because it’s forcing you to check your charge history more frequently?  People should be doing that anyway.  Of course, the other option is to have your card re-issued.  But for many that would be quite a lot of trouble.  Having a card replaced brings to your attention just how many accounts are set to draw money from it to pay bills, through a flood of mail and email.  So you just keep an eye on your statements, as—like I just said—you should be doing anyway.  And if a charge appears there that you didn’t make, you call the bank, and they fix it.  The banks are aware of the incident, and are presumably more understanding and vigilant because of it.  So in short, stop whining about your information being stolen.  If you know at all how to be responsible with a credit/debit card, it shouldn’t impact you financially in any way.  Of course I recognize that this is a vast generalization, and there are exceptions out there, but this really shouldn’t be as big an issue as people are making it out to be.

Now returning to issue number two.  I don’t have much to say, as it’s actually one of the more valid ones on the list.  Sony says they communicated much faster most companies typically do.  They may or may not be right; I don’t care enough to research into it.  However, what I’m willing to believe is the post made on PlayStation Blog that claims that knowing that there’s been an intrusion, and knowing that someone stole something, are two very different things.  It’s like if you came home to your house and realized the lock had been picked/destroyed/etc. and immediately surmise that the burglar made off with the jewelry hidden in your closet, before you even open the door.  Chances are they did, but shouldn’t you make sure before you cry wolf?  You’re not going to know for sure everything that may or may not have been taken until you take an inventory.  Is the situation so dissimilar in Sony’s case?  Even if they had informed us of the possibility on the 19th, how would they have worded it?  “You’re information may have been stolen”?  In every other message you get from big companies, ‘may’ almost always immediately interpreted as a soft way of saying ‘has’; how many people would have seen it differently.  The way I see it, all Sony did was try to prevent panic.  I can still see how people might have taken issue with this, but personally I didn’t bother me.

Number four is also valid, but only depending on what services people are referring to.  PSN by itself is free.  I don’t pay a dime to use it, and thus I’m not being financially slighted by its outage.  Now, there are premium services available on PSN.  Netflix, Hulu, and PlayStation Plus are all examples of such.  If you use those services, then you have a right to be pissed, because you’re not able to use something that you paid for, regardless of who’s fault it is.  I don’t know about the other stuff, but I pay for PlayStation Plus, and Sony’s compensating me—and every other PS+ subscriber—with an extra 60 days tacked onto my service; more than double the time that the network was down.

All that aside, I think Sony’s done a fair job apologizing.  Their so-called “Welcome Back” package is robust; more so than I expected it to be.  For sitting tight, at the bare minimum, you’ll be getting a month of PS+, two free PS3 games out of a list of five quality offerings (inFamous and LBP among them), two free PSP games, 100 free Home items, and some free movie rentals.  If you’re already a PS+ subscriber, as I mentioned before, that single month turns into two.  And I’ve read that Sony’s also offering a year of identity protection to users. 

If you ask me, most PlayStation gamers are set.  Why don’t you just forgive them?  I understand if people are hesitant or unwilling to trust PSN with their card information again; I myself might be looking into prepaid cards in the future, just to be safe.  But there’s no reason to turn your back on Sony and PlayStation.

Anyway, what truly concerns me is how this has and will continue to affect developers and publishers.  They stand to lose more from this than any of those whiny consumers.  The fall of PlayStation Store in particular will have completely halted revenue for developers like Q-Games, who have put their faith in the PSN and made quality exclusive titles.  Even Housemarque, who has an excellent track record on PSN—they made Super Stardust HD and Dead Nation, both of which will be free options as part of the Customer Appreciation package—and was supposed to release their new game Outland on the PS Store a week or so ago.  They would have been totally out of luck if they hadn’t also decided to go multiplatform with this title.

And digital distribution isn’t the only sector that’s been wounded.  Lack of online play in particular will have hurt retail sales, especially of new games like Brink, Mortal Kombat, and Portal 2, all of which had a host of online features (particularly Brink) for players to look forward to.

Sales will continue to be slow, as consumers remain hesitant to use their credit cards, adjust to alternative payment methods, and/or are simply slow to return to their PS3s.  Speaking long term, if Sony doesn’t do something for compensation or goodwill, this incident could hurt developer and publisher trust, which could mean fewer exclusives, or worse PS3 versions of multiplatform games.  Fortunately, PlayStation is a little more resilient to this than Xbox or Nintendo would be, as Sony has a camp of first party studios and series that will continue to do their part to hold the brand up.

In conclusion, I think it just irks me how little some people have thought about what really matters here.  And I’ll tell them it’s not the week or so they were unable to kill each other online.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Been Busy.

As the title says...I've been incredibly busy this year.  Hence the dramatically lower post frequency.  Even in my free time, I've been less inspired to write.  Which really sucks.  I'm gonna continue to post, for sure, but for the foreseeable future I don't see myself matching the totals made in the previous years.

Anyway, let's take a look at everything on the list.

  • Yakuza 3- The reason why this game has a maybe tacked on is because I'm actually wondering if it might be beyond my ability to give it a proper review.  This is just such a multifaceted game, I'm still pondering what angle would be best to tackle it from, if I were to write about it.  But the bottom line is, it's an excellent game.
  • Dead Space 2- I don't like to make promises of this sort, but this will most likely be the next review I post, unless I hit a breakthrough with Yakuza 3.  It's a very good game, and overall a complete package.  I'm enjoying every second of it.  Extraction only sweetens the pot.
  • The Sims 3- A review of this is forthcoming, I think..I just don't know when.  The deal is, my experience with the Sims franchise has always had more to do with the architectural and interior design aspects.  When I first got the Sims 2 oh so many years ago, sure I dabbled in the family business for a good while, but quickly abandoned it in favor of building lots.  But what with the additions in the Sims 3, it's been the opposite.  While the new building modes look very promising, I've actually settled into nurturing a Sim of my own.  But I recently learned that you can seemingly build entirely neighborhoods with the Beta Create-A-World Tool for the Sims 3, so...yeah.  Sorry, my beloved Sim!  I want to explore both aspects of the game thoroughly before I settle down and score the game, but as anyone who's played these games know, no matter how you play the Sims, it's a big time investment.  And I just don't have that kind of time on my hands these the review is delayed indefinitely.
  • Pokemon: An Intermediate Overview- Hoo boy, I don't know when I'm gonna get around to this.  My HeartGold playthrough has ground to a halt ever since I decided to completely rebuild my team from the ground up and EV train them (as in, from level 1) mid-game.  It's an ambitious task, but I'm determined to see it through.
  • AC Brotherhood (multiplayer)- The chances of me actually posting this are slim, as I don't expect to return to Brotherhood's multiplayer until I decide to platinum the game.  And I don't even know if I'll get around to doing that.
  • Sly Collection- I'm still undecided on how to format it, but a review is definitely coming.  How it's been lately is every few weeks I'll sit down and spend a few hours to completely blow through an episode of Sly 2.  Seeing as I'd like to wait until I'm at least a good way into Sly 3 before I sit down and write a review, maybe I'll have this up by fall time, at the rate I'm going!
  • Dead Space Extraction- Not sure if I'm going to write a post on this.  But it's a great game.  If you have a PS Move, buy it.
  • Genji: Days of the Blade- No, I'm not going to write a post on this..probably.  I'm only playing it because a friend claimed I couldn't get past the first level, because it is poorly designed.
  • Revenge of the Titans!- This game's got charm, but man it's difficult!  I like me some TD though, so I'll get through it eventually.  I don't think I'm gonna do a post on it though.
  • Quarttet!- This is my very first visual novel.  Well, sorta.  I got a couple hours into Fate/Stay Night (just a little bit past the prologue), before my progress just kinda dropped off.  At some point my save file disappeared, too.  I'll get back to it some day, because I think it's a really cool game.  Quarttet, however, is amazingly charming.  I like it a lot.  I haven't finished it yet, though.
  • LittleBigPlanet 2- The truth is, the same thing has happened to me on LBP 2 that happened on the first LBP.  I started a level..and being honest with myself, I'm not sure I'm gonna finish it.
  • Split/Second- As I hope I made clear in my review, I like this game, it's pretty dang fun.  I'm debating whether I'm gonna buy it or not.  At $20-30 it's a good buy.


  • Amagami SS- Just finished this a couple weeks ago.  Very good show, if it comes here on DVD and/or Blu-ray, I might just pick it up.
  • Karas- A short six-episode stint, Karas is unique, but didn't resonate with me.
  • Corpse Princess- I don't know what it is about this series that I enjoy, but I've fought doggedly to continue obtaining episodes after the fansubs disappeared.  Now that I've gotten the entire series, I plan to watch it all in the coming weeks.
  • Arakawa Under the Bridge- I wasn't expecting much from the show, and indeed at first it was pretty bland.  But it had its moments, and got better in later episodes.  I'm looking forward to the second season, which I just finished downloading.
  • Naruto Shippuuden- I'm not really actively watching this.  I'm on episode..33, I think, and grab new ones every so often.

Next up!

  • Working!- Hoping this will provide my regular comedy fix.  Not sure what to expect from it, but the title seems promising at least!
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion- I tried watching this many moons ago, and it completely bored me to death, so I dropped it.  I don't think I gave it a fair shake though, so I'm watching again.  Than I'll try the movies and see what all the fuss is about.  With Working! and Seiken no Blacksmith as my wingmen, I'm almost prepared to drag myself through this show, if that's what it comes to.
  • ToraDora- I watched the first episode of this a long time ago, it was actually quite entertaining, but I never got around to continuing.  Now I am.
  • Seiken no Blacksmith- Been hearing decent things about this series, so I'm starting it up.  Mainly as an addition to ToraDora, to offset NGE's expected dryness.

So there it is.  I realize it's also getting to be time for that editorial of mine.  It's coming.  When, I don't know.  For now, look forward to my post on Dead Space 2.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Ah, racing games.  How I enjoy them.  Nothing like the thrill of being behind the wheel of an exotic vehicle, tearing down tracks at crazy speeds with a pack of rivals, and fighting tooth and nail for first place, barely edging out a photo finish.  It’s been a couple years since a game like that came my way (has it really been that long since I delved into Burnout Paradise?).  Now Split/Second has walked up to the plate; color me interested.

Let’s start from the beginning.  Split/Second is a racing game, named after the titular fictional show that you play as a contestant on.  Split/Second pits racers driving fast, expensive-looking cars against each other in a host of events, including races and lap runs.  The show’s (and, by extension, the game’s) name comes from the inclusion of Power Plays, scripted events that participants can trigger mid-race.  Dozens of explosives have been planted in various places on each track; Power Plays set them off.  The effect can vary wildly, from merely exploding a nearby tanker, to downing an entire building.  The idea is that you use Power Plays as an offensive tactic; instead of throwing a blue shell at someone, or a missile, or something, you can cause the warehouse they’re in to implode, or the bridge they’re racing under to collapse.  I’ve slipped under closing doors, made ludicrous detours in the blink of an eye, and just barely evaded swinging wrecking balls more times than I can count.  Hence, Split/Second.  The entire game is like if you took that scene in a generic action movie where the hero and his girlfriend are trying to escape the enemy HQ, right after the hero set off that cleverly planted set of bombs, and the whole place is coming down...and you stretched it into a TV series.  There’s jumps, improvised detours, and hazards galore.

The presentation and overall design of the game is very consistent; every aspect of the game does its part to convey a general theme.  The menus are slick and edgy, and the HUD--a small overlay that trails directly behind your car, telling you the lap number and your current place, among other things--is a creative touch, being sufficiently informative without being at all distracting.

Progression in the game’s career mode is split up into episodes.  Each episode has about five events.  Each event you complete adds to your total credits, with higher placement netting you more credits.  Credits unlock cars, and also unlock the Elite Races.  To progress to a new episode, you have to place 3rd or better in the current episode’s Elite Race.  While other events are purely for credits, each Elite Race, also counts towards a single ongoing tournament, with higher placements being assigned higher point values.  Since Elite Races are exclusively done with a set of named racers, considered to be the best contenders in the series, the points ladder is sort of a way to see your current standing in the series, regardless of episode.

While Split/Second is hardly a complicated game, there are some things you’ll definitely be wanting to pay attention to as you race.  Power Plays are activated using energy from a bar on your HUD, segmented into three pieces.  There’s a few ways to gain energy, but your primary methods will be drifting and drafting.  Drifting is something anyone who knows anything about racing will be familiar with.  Drafting is in a similar boat, but I’ll explain it anyway.  Drafting is the act of taking advantage of an opponent’s slipstream to pass them.  Getting into a bit of aerodynamics, when you’re going fast, air resistance becomes a more significant factor in your speed output.  If you imagined a car boring through a mound of earth, and another car following closely behind it, you’d have an idea of what drafting is except it’s air, not earth you’re “tunneling” through.  Long story short, following about 1-2 seconds behind a car, at fast speeds gives you a speed boost, allowing you to catch up and pass them.  It will also charge your Power Play meter.

Other things to pay attention to are the types of Power Plays.  Like I said before, they come in many flavors, some being more effective most.  For example, a common basic Power Play is to cause a parked car to explode, causing it to roll across the road in a veritable ball of fire.  Another is to cause a piece of machinery to activate, like a wrecking ball swinging across the track, or a set of buzz saws flying out of their encasing.  Even if the actual explosion or effect doesn’t directly hit you, in many cases the mere activation of a Power Play sends out a shockwave that turns your wheels to jelly (metaphorically, of course), and sends you skidding, making it all too easy to crash into something, or worse yet, spin out.  Some Power Plays will activate shortcuts, such as opening a gate, allowing you to bypass a sharp turn altogether.  Others will cause shortcuts to come crashing down on those inside of them.  Power Plays are context sensitive, appearing over other racers’ cars when they’re in range of being affected by one.  Still, some opportunities to use Power Plays are better than others, and even with the shockwave it’s very possible to miss entirely, or for a Power Play to have essentially no effect.  Frequently I’ve activated a Power Play, only for those near it to shake it off.  And yet one time I managed to eliminate six racers simultaneously by detonating a tanker, causing it to slide across the track, sweeping the whole rest of the pack into oblivion.

The most destructive Level 2 Power Plays require a full bar of energy, but the results are beautiful to behold.  Usually Level 2 Power Plays alter the course of the track, forcing a detour and wrecking anyone and everyone who are too late to switch routes.  For example, driving across a warf, I activated a Lv2 Power Play, which detonated a large ship, causing it to tip sideways, completely wrecking the stretch of track in front of us.  We instead had to drive onto the deck of the ship to bypass the wall of fire that had sprung up.  Another one derailed a train, causing it to crash in the area up ahead, and forcing us onto the freeway overhead.

Unfortunately, it’s not all positives.  Just like in many other games of the genre, there is some definite rubber-banding present, and it can get really bad at times.  When it takes you the better part of a lap to catch up to a computer cruising in 1st place, but only a minute or so for the computer to do the same to you, you know something’s not right.  The computer’s cars also don’t always seem to observe the same stats as yours do.  Trucks and SUVs are fully capable of passing sports cars (they weren’t drafting me, I checked), and a couple times I even saw a car literally spawn a couple hundred feet behind me.  It’s to the point that it actually kind of squanders your sense of progression in regards to the cars you earn.  Even though there’s a definite increase in performance as you unlock more cars, going back to older races with your newly unlocked cars doesn’t help much, as the computer will always use cars similar in class to the one you’re using.  

I also have a personal problem with the fact that the trucks and SUVs seem to be the computer’s car class of choice, just like you’ll find AI opponents more often than not touting rocket launchers and shock rifles in Unreal Tournament, and always dropping everything to go for health recovery items and the Smash Ball in Super Smash Bros games.  There’s just few things in life more irritating than driving an exotic super car and having an SUV just zoom right past you.  The competitors that aren’t driving in humongous trucks instead tend to choose whatever car you’re driving.  It’s kind of underwhelming, but at least the copying is only at its worst in the beginning episodes, when you don’t have that many cars.

Some of the crashes suffered by both you and the computer will feel arbitrary.  You’ll see it far more often in the AI, who will get pushed by a Power Play and either blow up right then and there, or essentially stop trying to steer, and go careening into a wall.  But it happens to you as well occasionally;  sometimes it feels like the game has frozen your steering wheel as a side effect of a Power Play shockwave, forcing you to crash.  Other times, the game won’t even give you a chance to actually hit something; your car will simply explode, and that’ll be that.  This hasn’t happened enough to cause frustration more than a couple times in my playtime thus far, though.

Other than races, there’s a fair number of other event types.  Detonator is very similar to your generic time attack sort of deal, except nearly every Power Play in the stage (including Level 2’s) is being activated as you draw near them, making this possibly the most action-y mode in the game.  Normally I dislike time trials, but Detonator is actually really fun.  There’s also Eliminator, which is kind of like Race except there’s a timer, and when that timer depletes, the guy in last place explodes, and is eliminated from the race.  This goes on at 20-30 second intervals, until there’s only one competitor left.  Clearly, to be a competitor in Split/Second you’d have to have a bit of crazy in you, evidenced by the other modes, Air Attack, Air Revenge, and Survival (the latter of which has you skirting in between a spill of explosive barrels dropped out of a series of giant big rigs).

Split/Second’s car selection isn’t bad.  There’s mainly three varieties of cars: 1)trucks and SUVs, which have good handling, and handle shockwaves better than the other guys, 2)sports cars and tuners, which are fast and nimble, but get knocked around easily, and 3)muscle cars, all-around vehicles that tend to have decent stats in every area.

There’s only a handful of environments, with a couple tracks running through each one, stretched across all 12 episodes.  Though this issue is diminished greatly by the ability to switch routes (sometimes multiple times on track) using Lv2 Power Plays, as of this writing I’m a little over halfway through the game and I am starting to feel the effects of recycled content.  What environments there are though, are nicely varied.

Overall, Split/Second is a well-performing, good looking game.  There’s a load screen when you first start the game up, and before starting each event, but thankfully you don’t have to sit through one if you decide to restart an event.  The game makes pretty great use of effects, with plenty of lens flare present.  For a game filled with explosions though, I think the explosions could actually look much better, as could the objects that go flying as a result of them.  There’s some clear crudeness in a lot of the environment models, and the textures aren’t too convincing.  I've also spotted the occasional visual glitch, such as the ground disappearing into a black abyss, but they usually come and go so quickly that it's hard to pay much attention to them.  

The car models look great.  When the race begins, they look like they just rolled out of the dealership.  Crossing the finish line, there’s scratches galore on the sides, and streaks of dirt and dust on the paint.  At really fast speeds you get a bit of camera shake to let you know you’re being totally reckless, and dirt and debris tends to fly onscreen when something goes off near you.

Whoever was in charge of sound design in this game probably deserves a pat on the back, because Split/Second’s audio is incredibly engaging.  The BGM seems to consist of only one song, but it never feels like it because that song is remixed wildly to fit different situations.  For example, when you first arrive at the title screen, only a barebones version of it is playing.  As you go from menu to menu, more instruments chime in.  Mid-race is where you’ll really see the rewards of excellent sound design.  For example, you’re driving across an airport, and you see something in the sky way, way far up ahead.  Just as you realize that’s a mother-effin’ cargo plane on a crash course for you, the music just completely stops momentarily, as if you’re stuck in a vacuum.  Then it hits, and everything strikes back up again.  This game’s audio sucks you in.  Other sounds of note include a definite presence of the doppler effect (especially when you head into tunnels), and convincing engine sounds.

Split/Second is a very good game.  I didn’t get a chance to try its multiplayer (it also has two player split-screen, quick play and online modes), but the single player stands firm by itself as a fun and engaging experience.  The AI rubber-banding is irritating at times, to be sure, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to hamper what is otherwise a very solid racing title.  Especially for someone who enjoys Mario Kart, arguably the king of AI hax.  An 8.5/10.