Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: May 2005

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

All three at E3

So the biggest annual event in the gaming world, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) is upon us once more. E3 2005 is currently underway in Los Angeles and is sending shockwaves across the world. The big three have all unveiled their next generation consoles: Microsoft X-Box 360, Sony Playstation 3 and Nintendo Revolution have all been shown in some form.

X-Box 360 was first to show, with a pre-E3 special on MTV and the first of the official E3 press conferences. Featuring a slick silver-white concave design and total processing power of 1 teraflop (that's one trillion calculations per second), the 360 made more than a few jaws drop. It's clearly a generation ahead of the highest-end PCs (and Macs!) available on the market today. The teraflop of power comes from the combination of a custom-designed 3.2GHz three-core Power PC based IBM CPU, and the first ever Unified Shader Architecture GPU (custom-built by ATI) which can push around 500 million polygons a second. 360 comes with half a gigabyte of RAM onboard, a removable 20GB harddrive, 9GB capacity standard DVD-ROM based media, built-in Wi-Fi, limited backwards-compatibility, three USB ports and support for four 2.4GHz cordless controllers as standard. All 360 games will support interlaced hi-definition (1080i) display and surround sound. Impressive.

Next up was Sony, who showed off their silver convex design PS3. All those who were previously blown away by the X-Box 360 went into a state of numb disbelief when Sony laid out the PS3 details in their press conference. PS3's total processing power weighs in at 2 teraflops. That's twice the power of Microsoft's 360. PS3 is the first consumer electronics device to be announced that will use the amazing new Cell chip co-developed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba. As the PS3's CPU, the Cell runs at the same clockspeed as X-Box 360's CPU (3.2GHz), but due to it's ground-breaking architecture is capable of far greater computational power. NVidia designed the new GPU for PS3, which Sony have dubbed the RSX (Reality Synthesizer). Touted as being able to produce cinema quality CG in real-time (we've heard that before...), the RSX certainly does appear to be the most powerful real-time graphics hardware ever built, and is capable of some stunning shader effects. No official poly-count figures for PS3 have been announced.

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With the RSX, PS3 not only goes one better than 360 by supporting true high-definition output in progressive scan (1080p), but it actually supports dual HD output. If you happen to have two high-definition panels handy (Ha!), then the PS3 can render two different full 2K x 1K progressive scan HD signals to both screens in real-time. (If you're not that lucky, you can use a PC monitor or non-HD TV for a second screen instead.) As examples, they mentioned that you can play a game on one screen and watch a hi-def movie, or surf the net, or video chat live with other players at the same time. Alternatively, you can simply slap both hi-def widescreens side by side for a single massive panoramic game display. While there has been no talk of it whatsoever, it seems clear to me that Sony have left the doors open for a high-definition stereoscopic VR-style headset peripheral in future. You can't tell me that with dual real-time HD output, this idea hasn't crossed their minds.

PS3 has half a gig of RAM, supports seven Bluetooth wireless controllers simultaneously, uses 54GB capacity Blu-Ray disc media, and is backwards compatible with PS2. It supports most removable media types, including memory stick (standard and duo), compact flash, SD cards, 2.5" removable hard-drives and up to 6 USB devices. PS3 is designed to be an always on, always connected device, and it seems you'll be able to remotely control the PS3 wirelessly via PSP when you're away from home. Very nifty indeed. Some of the tech demos shown in Sony's 2-hour press conference (including new Eyetoy applications) have left my brain in a state of near meltdown. It's truly difficult to comprehend the full potential of Sony's PS3.

Nintendo revealed very little in their press conference regarding Revolution. They showed a prototype of their black angular console in their press conference, but as expected, have not revealed Revolution's new controllers (believed to be wireless, gyroscopic and touch sensitive), or whatever other revolutionary tricks they have up their sleeves. Revolution is rumoured to be about three times as powerful as Gamecube in terms of processing power, which leaves it way behind 360 and PS3. Nintendo have said all along that they're not taking part in the processor speed race, choosing instead to implement innovative new features to "expand gaming". Whatever they're up to on that front, they're not telling yet.

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Revolution also has half a gig of flash memory, built-in Wi-Fi, uses an undisclosed type of 12cm optical disc-based media (standard DVD-size), and features optional DVD playback as well as complete backwards compatibility. Sure to win over many retro fans, Revolution will play Gamecube, N64, SNES and even NES games. Now that's old school. Nintendo also revealed "GBA Micro" in their press conference - the smallest Gameboy Advance yet (just bigger than iPod mini), looking like a small NES pad with a backlit screen. New footage from the forthcoming Gamecube game "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" also pleased the crowd.

Nintendo's conference was rather intriguing. There were no Revolution controllers shown and there was no mention of the forthcoming GameBoy Evolution at all. Co-incidence? They seemed to be talking in riddles at times, with careful choices of words as if they were presenting a puzzle to be solved, challenging us to use our "right brain". There may be further revelations from Nintendo before E3 is over.

X- Box 360 will be launched late this year and PS3 and Revolution will debut in 2006. Games developers certainly have unprecedented power to start taking advantage of in the coming generation, and while some early trailers show promise, I think it'll be a long time before we really see it put to good use. Exciting times ahead.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Play GameBoy on PSP

Progress in the PSP homebrew scene certainly has been rocketing along since the recent discovery of the v1.00 firmware exploit. Much to everyone's surprise, the first working GameBoy emulator was released for PSP a few days ago, and has already been superceded. RIN v0.8 is the current release from Mr. Mirakichi, and it allows classic Gameboy games (like the original B&W Tetris) and GameBoy Color titles to be played on PSP.

There's no sound support yet and the display looks tiny on-screen (as it is not upscaled), but emulation speed is excellent. RIN v0.8 emulates at full speed, which is a huge improvement over its sluggish initial release. It will only run a single GB/GBC rom that has been renamed "ROM.GB" and placed in the same directory (PSP/GAME/RIN/) on the memory stick as RIN itself. As such, a sidekick PSP application has also been released (and updated) that will rename and copy roms to that location so games can be switched on the go (ie. without having to connect to a PC to perform the file transfer).

The delicious irony of Mirakichi's particular homebrew app is that it plays classic Nintendo Gameboy and Gameboy Color games which Nintendo's own latest handheld cannot. Nintendo's DS is only backwards-compatible with GameBoy Advance games, featuring no support for GB or GBC games. Nintendo can't be particularly pleased about their logo popping up on PSP screens. You have to wonder whether some people at Sony secretly find this amusing.

Sony are taking the threat posed by the recent exploit discovery seriously. They have confirmed (via their Japanese PSP site) that firmware updates will be mandatory for some future game releases and that firmware updates will be included on the game UMDs. They have also just released firmware version 1.51 for Japanese PSPs. This time around they're not even claiming that there are any functionality improvements in it. It is apparently only a security update over version 1.50, and they ask for everyone's co-operation in updating their Japanese PSPs to this latest version. It can only be assumed that Sony are plugging holes that they are aware of in the v1.50 firmware before anyone can discover and exploit them. As there is no discernable benefit to the user, I can't imagine too many people voluntarily applying this update. There are certainly plenty of people kicking themselves at having applied the v1.50 update already.

While other homebrew PSP programs are emerging (like Portable Tetris, PSP's first true homebrew game), it is clear that Sony are taking practical steps to ensure that the small number of people still capable of running them on the original v1.00 firmware will continue to dwindle. The speed of progress in the PSP homebrew scene is nothing short of astounding right now, but whether it will continue at this rate as it's audience dies off remains to be seen.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Twisted Metal: Head On

Heads online, Tales you lose.

You could be forgiven for thinking that every second title in the PSP's launch line-up is an old Playstation franchise revisited, though as the new incarnations of Ridge Racer and WipEout have proven, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The path of the Twisted Metal franchise has been a long and bumpy ride. Ten years ago, developers SingleTrac established the vehicular combat genre with the original hit Playstation game. SingleTrac's 1996 follow-up, Twisted Metal 2: World Tour, was also hugely successful and is still fondly remembered by many as the peak of the series. After TM2, Sony handed the rights to the franchise over to 989 Studios, who produced Twisted Metal 3 (1998) and Twisted Metal 4 (1999), both of which were disappointing affairs. The introduction of a more realistic physics engine (TM was never about realism) was one of many mistakes that detracted from the gameplay in 989's sequels. Luxoflux's rival franchise, Vigilante 8, rightfully took the vehicle combat crown from the crumbling TM series.

Meanwhile, SingleTrac produced another vehicular combat game called Rogue Trip (1998), that was as close to an unofficial Twisted Metal sequel as they could legally get. It was enough to prove they still had the winning gameplay formula up their sleeve. Much to the relief of TM fans, Sony gave the franchise back to the members of the original development team, who formed a new game studio called Incog Inc. (aka Incognito) as part of Sony Computer Entertainment's Santa Monica studio group. Incog reclaimed the throne and ushered the series into the next generation with Twisted Metal: Black (2001) on PS2. As the name implied, Black was a much darker take on the Twisted Metal universe, featuring tortured characters with disturbing storylines set in a gritty post-apocalyptic dystopia. The fact that all FMVs related to character plots were pulled from the PAL releases is indicative of just how gory and twisted Black was. Incog also released a final Twisted Metal game for the PSone in 2001 that went almost unnoticed. In sharp contrast to the decidedly adult Black, Twisted Metal: Small Brawl was a childish game based around kids with remote control cars. It went unnoticed for a reason: it was rubbish. 2002 saw the release of Twisted Metal: Black Online, a cutdown online-multiplayer-only version of Black that Sony offered as a free redemption game with US PS2 Network Adapters.

Are we there yet? Yes. That long and winding road brings us to Twisted Metal: Head On for PSP. The first thing that strikes you about Head On is that it is clearly not a sequel to Black. Head On's brightly coloured cel-shaded intro movie sets a distinctly different tone, setting the stage for a return to the quirkier, more comic feel of Twisted Metal 1 & 2. Indeed, Head On feels very much like a true sequel to (or contemporized version of) Twisted Metal 2: World Tour.

Once again, the mysterious Calypso organizes a tournament of vehicular destruction wreaking mayhem across the globe, promising to grant a single wish to the victor. All the usual vehicles and drivers return to fight their way through the arena battles and conquer the game's three boss stages. As well as Story mode, TM:HO provides Challenge and Endurance modes, as well as a swag of multiplayer modes and options.

The graphics, while not quite up to Black standards, do not disappoint, with detailed vehicles and environments and visually satisfying weapon effects. The game engine's draw distance is impressive, always allowing you to see the far side of the game's huge arenas, with only the faintest hints of texture switching and small detail pop-in. Aside from the first two stages (Stadium and LA) which are rather simple and sparse, the level design in the other stages (which include locations such as Paris, Egypt, Tokyo, Greece, Russia and Monaco) is excellent, with large interesting arenas peppered with hidden areas and plenty of destructible scenery. The frame rate is solid and the game cracks along at a frantic pace.

The game is easy to pick up and play, but like it's predecessors, features quite a bit of depth. Each vehicle has it's own special attack and machine guns, and there are loads of different weapon pick-ups throughout the stages, each of which also has a unique environmental attack. Through the use of directional and button combos, a wide variety of extra moves can be performed, such as rear fire, jumping, turbo, shield activation, cloaking, freezing, dropping mines, etc. The controls are very responsive, almost too responsive. The analog controls are so touchy that chances are you'll be swerving around madly unless you stick to the d-pad for steering. Even if you can get used to analog steering, you'll still find the overly sensitive analog control will lead to you regularly executing power moves accidentally. Exclusive use of the d-pad is recommended. By defeating opponents, players can pick up power-ups to upgrade their vehicles special attacks, guns, armor, turbos and such. The upgrades will carry over from one stage to the next, but are lost whenever your vehicle is destroyed.

Each stage in story mode contains an optional mini-game, which can be used to score a lot of easy weapon pick-ups, and should you perform well enough, you can unlock more hidden characters and deathmatch arenas too. These mini-games range from fun to frustrating, but provide a welcome diversion from the (ultimately repetitive) drive-and-shoot gameplay. The music for each stage is inoffensively generic and has been flavoured to suit each locale.

The AI displays a respectable amount of strategy at the Hard difficulty setting, and the bosses present a real challenge. I'd go so far as to say the last two bosses are cheap, but hey, this is essentially a tournament fighting game after all, so that's par for the course.

Despite the core elements all being intact, somehow Head On never really manages to be as satisfying or have the same impact that TM2: World Tour did. It's difficult to determine exactly which magic ingredient is missing. The formula is undoubtedly getting stale after a decade and may be more fun for the uninitiated than for veterans, but Story mode's lack of story is certainly one area in which Head On falls flat.

Whereas Black had three movie sequences for each character in Story mode (a beginning, middle and ending), the characters' storylines in Head On are virtually non-existent. Most people will miss the story altogether, as you actually have to press square on the character select screen to read a brief outline of their background and motivation. Once you're in the game, Story mode is identical for every character until their ending "movie". There's a short in-game intro cutscene from Calypso and a couple of even shorter boss intro cutscenes, but no real feeling of a story taking place at all. I used quotation marks around the word "movie" because it's more of a storyboard than a movie. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that these are in fact the storyboards of the ending movies that never got made. It's apparent from the impressive cel-shaded intro movie that 3D models of many of the characters had been built, and similar cel-shaded ending movies are what you'd expect to be rewarded with upon completion of the game. Instead you'll be subjected to a just barely animated hand-drawn storyboard of an ending sequence. The characters' lips don't even move when they speak. The weak characterization present in the uninteresting endings is really far too little and too late by then. Shabby Incog. Very shabby.

I expect the pressure to have Head On out for the US PSP launch had something to do with Story mode's obvious under-development, but whatever the reason, it really hurts the game. Without any kind of personality or story to hang onto, there's little motivation for players to complete Story mode with all 17 characters. Admittedly there are two branching points in Story mode, where you will have to choose one world location over another, but this still means that after playing through Story mode twice, you could potentially have seen pretty much everything it has to offer.

Fortunately, multiplayer is where the game really comes into its own. Head On supports wireless multiplayer in three forms: Ad Hoc, Infrastructure LAN and Infrastructure. This means you can play multiplayer with up to five other players by directly communicating with nearby PSPs, or with PSPs within range of one local wireless access point, or true wireless online with players across the globe. PSP has been lacking in true online titles, and Head On proves that it can be done very well.

Setting up or joining an online game is very straightforward and feels much like you'd expect from a home console. After accepting an online EULA, you pick a lobby room, see what games are on offer (or start your own), and you're up and playing in no time. It's been implemented exceptionally well. You can even chat in the lobby (a feature that was missing from PS2's Black Online), though PSP's mobile-phone keyboard interface is less than ideal for creative trash-talking. As well as the standard Deathmatch mode, there's Last Man Standing, Fox Hunt, and Collector modes (all available as individual or team-based versions), as well as 2 player co-operative Story mode.

There are a wide range of options for customizing the multiplayer modes, so there's plenty of scope for fresh match setups. As well as tweaking the settings for weapons, vehicles, health pick-ups and environments, the Power Relics from Twisted Metal: Black can be included to add an even broader range of special powers to multiplayer matches. If the host of a match quits, the game doesn't end; another player is automatically chosen as the new host. All the teething troubles reported with the TM servers when Head On was first released have been resolved. I've never dropped out or been kicked off, and I have always found games with minimal lag to join at any time of day or night. I have experienced occasional frame rate drops in online matches, but nothing significantly detrimental to the game experience.

Taking part in solid, good-looking, hectic six-player carnage with players across the globe on a handheld console is a pretty amazing experience. That's where Head On is head and shoulders above the pack right now. If you have a PSP, wireless internet access, and even the vaguest interest in the genre, then Twisted Metal: Head On is definitely worth checking out. Looked at solely as a single-player experience, it's good, but repeated play in Story mode soon becomes tedious.

Head On is neither a Rolls Royce nor a flaming wreck. With the latest Twisted Metal, Incog have rolled out a nice new model of a vehicle that we're already comfortable driving. Cruising round the same old streets may be starting to lose it's thrill, but taking this baby for a spin on the superhighway shows there's still some gas left in the tank.


Friday, May 06, 2005

PSP Hacked Already

It has begun. Less than six months after its japanese debut, the PSP has been hacked. A guy going by the name of nem has posted the first homebrew PSP binary over at Nem's HelloWorld program proves that it is possible to boot unsigned code from the PSP's memory stick duo. It's worth noting that the code was reportedly written entirely from scratch (ie. legally - without the use of Sony's SDK).

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This marks the start of the PSP's homebrew scene, which I anticipate will take off rather quickly. Given the PSP's similarity to the PS2, and the highly evolved nature of the PS2 dev scene, I suspect we'll be seeing unofficial movie player software (that allows movies on memory stick to play at PSP's full native resolution) and emulators like MAME on PSP in the not too distant future.

There is a catch of course. For now, homebrew code can only be run on PSP's with the original version 1.00 firmware. Only the original Japanese PSP's were shipped with this firmware and many of these have already been updated to v1.50 via the Network Update function. The US PSPs all shipped with v1.50 and the new Japanese PSPs now on sale come with v1.50 installed. There is no way to downgrade an updated PSP back to version 1.00. As such, most PSPs in circulation right now (and all PSPs sold in future) will be unable to run homebrew code via the current method. It's likely that Sony will make firmware updates mandatory in future game releases to try to stamp this out. Homebrew code in-and-of-itself doesn't really pose a major threat to Sony, but some of the possible implications of running unsigned code on PSP are going to be causing a few sleepless nights at SCE right now.

Most notably, legendary cracking group Paradox have cracked the UMD format, allowing them to dump the contents of UMD games to ISO files. They have released several ISOs of launch games already, but currently have no means of making them playable. You don't have to be a genius to work out that making these ISOs playable off memory stick duo is going to be a high priority in the underground dev scene.

Interesting times ahead.