||Ramblings 2: Controllers, CRTs, Demos, More
December 31, 2001 Paul Sullivan
Summary: More stream of consciousness (ok it's not quite Faulkner) from Paul on various topics including XBox controller ergonomics, CRTs: Aperture Grille vs. Shadow Mask, the latest game demos, and the disturbing pervasiveness of MS Passport.
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 6 )|
Seems that the Ramblings concept hit a chord among the readers, as feedback was some 95% positive. It's so nice not to get tons of flame mail over an article that I think a second article is in order.
Speaking of positive responses, I had a chance to get my hands on the Japanese version of the Xbox controller, and I have to say, it blows away the US version. Check out the pics below to get an idea of the size and layout of the Japanese version:
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The first image shows the controller in all its glory. Each thumb-stick has a large indentation with four rubber bumps to help ensure a good grip. They work very well and are more comfortable than the smaller indentations on the US controller, and it felt like the rubber on the Japanese controller was more supple and as a result fingers were less sore.
The D-pad on the Japanese controller felt much more comfortable than the US version, particularly during heavy use, and the diamond orientation of the four primary buttons on the right side of the pad was much easier to get used to and made gaming more error-free.
The odd white and black buttons on the US controller are still on the Japanese controller, but they have been moved down to the right of the analog stick. Frankly, I don't even see the need for these extra buttons, but if you have to have them, the Japanese controller does have a much better placement. The same goes for the start and back buttons on the Japanese controllers.
Thanks to the shape of the grips, the Japanese pad feels more comfortable and secure, particularly when accessing the triggers on the underside of the controller. I still think Fusion Frenzy is a garbage game, but at least when using the Japanese controller, you can walk away without your hands feeling cramped and pained.
The connection wires seemed about the same, and there were still two slots for cards on the back of the unit, so the Japanese controller looks to be on par with the US version in terms of functionality. I think if Microsoft opted to make this controller available in the US, it would be a smash-hit. Kids could get a better grip on things, and adults would have less change of goofing up their "remote control-friendly" fingers and thumbs. The US version may look cooler and play better for some, but I honestly think if you tried both side by side, the Japanese release would come out ahead.
SIDEBAR: The Logitech Wingman Rumblepad for the PC is still one of my favorite controllers. It not only has two analog sticks and a D-pad, but six easy to reach thumb-buttons, two awesome triggers and a very handy sliding throttle. The mode button tops off a nice release. Check it out if you can at yonder computer SuperStore.
| Displays||Page:: ( 2 / 6 )|
Aperture Grille vs Invar Shadow Mask
While some are going nuts about LCD flat panels, it is a fact of life that CRTs are much more responsive in terms of display refresh thanks to the speed of light compared to the speed of liquid. I'm a huge CRT fan, and would rather have a big old tube in front of me than a tiny LCD. There does seem to be a big debate about CRTs though, one that has divided the gaming community into two big camps: The Aperture Grille fans and the Invar Shadow Mask fans.
As the image below shows, Aperture Grille consists of a series of wires that go from the top to the bottom of the display, with one, perhaps two stabilizer wires going across them to help minimize vibration and color bleed. Shadow Mask displays consist of a single metal sheet with uniform oval / round holes punched in it so that colored light can shine through.
There are a ton of technology arguments on both sides which can be researched in exasperating detail on the web should you feel the need, but for me, I think it boils down to a matter of preference. I personally find Shadow Mask to be more 'friendly' to my aging eyes. The light seems to come through 'softer' than with Aperture Grille, and the image seems more stable, with less shimmering. Aperture Grille seems to 'flicker' when the wires vibrate (caused by a variety of things) and those stabilization wires really get on my nerves. I remember one computer manufacturer saying you may have to 'nudge' the side of the monitor to eliminate shimmering. If I have to beat my computer equipment up to get it to work, I think I'll go back to punch-cards.
A little while back, I decided to upgrade from a 19" to a 21" monitor and did some very serious investigation of just about everything out there. After doing a ton of research, I ended up taking my mid-tower machine to a variety of local stores and plugging in a bunch of monitors that I felt made the grade. Hitachi had some great offerings, as did Sony and NEC, but when all was said and done, I ended up going with Viewsonic.
I found their high-end shadow mask model P225 to be a fantastic monitor, with rich, deep colors, crisp text and incredible image stability, even at the highest of resolutions. 2048x1536 is totally doable on this monitor, though 1920x1440 is a bit more friendly on the eyes. Refresh rates top out at 79hz for the highest resolution, 84hz for 1920x1440 and 99hz for 1600x1200, impressive to say the least. 350mhz of video bandwidth ensures the high refresh rates and image quality, and the 20" of usable screen space seem uniformly clear from edge to edge, corner to corner. An unexpected bonus comes in the form of a self-powered 4 port USB hub on the right side of the monitors base, right where it seems to do the most good.
It may not be the right unit for everyone, but it certainly fit the bill for me. Check this specific unit out at: http://www.viewsonic.com/products/crt_p225.cfm, or give a look at the other offerings from Viewsonic. They've been around a long time, and really do have some great products at solid prices.
SIDEBAR: Viewsonic also offers an Aperture Grille model with comparable functionality. It is identified as the P225F. It is a 22" with 20" viewable and also lacks the USB hub, but if you crave Aperture Grille, it is available.
| Demos||Page:: ( 3 / 6 )|
The Ups and Downs of Downloads
In the age of DSL and Cable modems, demos of the big game titles are more within our grasp than ever before. These 100 megabyte plus downloads contain more graphics, more sound and more effects than any demos used to. But just because they are big does not mean they are better.
Frankly, some of the demos I have downloaded over the last few months have been pretty bad. AquaNox, the highly touted 'visual feast,' did not impress me in the least in its demo form. The same goes for DroneZ and a few other titles out there. If companies are going to spend all that time putting out a huge demo, the least they could do is make the game interesting to play. Remember Daikatana? The demo was so much weaker than the later levels in the game, that it may have done as much to doom the game as anything else did. If they had just put forth a demo based upon some of the later levels, this game may have actually had some respectable sales. Well, maybe not, but I admit I am in a giving mood these holidays.
This month, my curiosity was piqued with the release of two major demo releases: Return To Castle Wolfenstein, single player and Serious Sam The Second Encounter. I have been a Wolf fan from way back; a lot of us cut our FPS teeth on the title. All these years later, they finally have put forth an updated sequel, and I had been itching to play it because, in part, I thought it would offer more of the same with an updated engine. Serious Sam on the other hand, was a more recent phenomenon. A visually impressive throwback to the gameplay of the original Doom, where you have big guns, big explosions and hordes of strange creatures to plow through on your way to the next objective. The sequel promised more lush images and even more bizarre characters to interact with. I was disappointed when I found that only one of these new demos ended up paying off.
Return To Castle Wolfenstein had some multiplayer demos out, but I had been wanting the single player version because, after all, the original was all about single player. I downloaded and installed the demo, and from the very start I felt that more time and effort had been put into the graphics than usability and gameplay. For instance, the opening interface stretched the various options across the screen so that you had to move the mouse a greater distance to get at them. On top of that, they did not default to useful selections for keyboard users. Why not default to Play, a level and a difficulty so that we could just hit Enter a few times and dive right in? Minor, yes, but there's more. There are these annoying intro screens that come up while the program loads files and such. They force you to sit there and wait while they load, and then when they are done, you have to click this glowing arrow in the lower-right corner of the screen to progress. I could not seem to find a way to get the Enter key to move me forward. I thought it would be over, but it took me to an annoying cut screen, that luckily allowed me to Escape out of it, but I had to sit and wait for this annoying "fade very slowly to black" effect. I could have done without this little nicety - I just wanted to shoot some Nazi scumbags. As if that was not enough, there was yet another intro screen that showed mission instructions while code loaded, and again I had to click on that smallish arrow in the lower-right corner. Then another annoying "fade very slowly to black" scenario and finally, finally I was able to get started.
I headed out of the cell and found these rather bland, flat wall textures facing me as I headed down the hall. I had started with a knife, but then a gun was on the floor, so I picked up. I reached a doorway, and instead of it opening automatically as I ran into it, I had to hit the Enter key. Argh. So then I proceeded forward and found that the gun worked great as I killed the scientist. The guard came, I killed him, then opened the door, ran up some stairs and somehow got a machine gun after killing another guard. I ran around, got ammo and health and started blasting, only to find that the darn thing reloaded at the worst possible moments! I don't want to sit there waiting for 2 seconds while the darn gun reloads! I just want it to keep shooting these Nazi scumbags!
I wandered up an oddly designed spiral staircase that just 'stopped' in mid air with no railing, and eventually made it to a room where people were shooting at huge holes in the thick castle floor. I expect castle floors to be very strong, so this entire idea seemed out of whack. Further, I was struck by the inconsistencies in the game. You could blow things apart, but not open chests and lockers? Why were the textures in some parts of the game, such as the castle stones, so detailed, while others such as the lockers, tables and meals so flat? Why had they spent so much time on fog and transparency effects, but so little on other elements of the game?
I was annoyed, and after playing three more times all the way through, I was still annoyed. Where were the cries of "mein leiben" and all the barking dogs? RTCW looked like a B-movie filled with stupid monsters and mad scientists instead of Nazi scumbags. There were no real elements tying it to the original, and frankly, I lost interest pretty darn fast. Is this the best they could do after all these years?
SIDEBAR: Style over substance is really not a good way to go. I heard how great AquaNox was going to be, but I think it is a pretty bad game. I was jazzed about RTCW, but again, it let me down. I wonder why so many developers seem to become victims of their own marketing hype instead of focusing on their roots?
| Demo Redux||Page:: ( 4 / 6 )|
I downloaded this demo and found the same, familiar interface from the earlier release. A few taps of the key was all that was needed to get into the game, though it did take some time to load components. I appreciated that each progress bar let me know what was going on - it seemed to make the time pass faster. It is still annoying that on a 1.2ghz AMD with 512meg of RAM and a modern DX8 accelerator, you still have to wait, but the wait for Sam was shorter than for Wolf.
I entered the game with only a few keystrokes, and am dumped into a pool of water. I headed to the surface and onto the shore and got a gander at the bold, colorful world around me. Wow, not bad at all. I saw a phone booth in the corner, headed over into it and pressed the USE key (Enter) and got a big kick out of what came next. I won't spoil it for you, but you should check it out.
Dove back into the water, grabbed the chainsaw off the dock and headed through the cheesy plants and trees towards the temple. Enemies came at me, I found ammo and guns and just went nuts blasting away at anything that moved. The plant graphics did look kind of cheesy, as they appeared to be bitmaps rendered on a transparent cube or slab instead of being real 3D rendered plants, such as you would find in Bryce or Lightwave. They are effective enough I guess, but still, I was a bit disappointed. One cool thing I saw was how they are not rendered at all until you reach a certain distance, then they slowly fade in. Pretty cool.
As I headed forward, I had to wait through a few cut scenes, at least, until I hit the Escape key and the scene instantly switched back to real-time gaming. Much better than the dreaded "slow fade". I found the sniper rifle, and was using it in seconds. It worked much like the one in Unreal Tournament. I kept going through the demo, blasting and running and jumping and before I knew it, it was over. Yes, it was too short, but it was one heck of a fun ride. In just minutes, I was able to get a look at the new weapons, enemies and environments. It was a much more effective introduction than Return To Castle Wolfenstein had been.
I had expected Wolf to be a slam-bam first person shooter, like its predecessor had been, but instead was greeted with a mix of stealth and eye-candy that had an odd pace to it. If it had been a demo for a Thief sequel, it might have been more in line with expectations, but as it was, it did not pay off the way I had expected it to. Serious Sam, on the other hand, was exactly what I expected it to be.
If you look at demos as a promotional product, you may compare it to a commercial. It needs to get you interested fairly quickly and hold onto your attention. In most cases, the commercial needs to represent the product, though in some cases they can work without doing so. In terms of these two demos, Serious Sam did a good job of representing the product and getting the user involved quickly. However, I don't think the same can be said for Castle Wolfenstein. It was not what I expected as a 'sequel' and it was pretty darn inconsistent in its implementation. In this tale of two demos, I have to say, Wolf failed and Sam soared.
PC Screen Shots
Quick note on PC screen shots. Windows has a built in clipboard that captures screens when you press the Print Screen key. It works most of the time and I find it faster and easier than most third party remedies. Once the image is in the clipboard, it is a breeze to paste into your favorite image editing program.
I am a huge fan of JASC's Paint Shop Pro, currently at version 7. It has about 90% of PhotoShop's features for about $100, and after all the years and all the upgrades, I don't think I'd want to use any other program. It has some of its own screen capture tools as well, and has a very handy browse mode that lets you view and work with your images without having to seek them out individually. It also has a handy batch-conversion feature so you can change graphics from one format to another on the fly. For those who need even more automated image handling, JASC also offers Image Robot, which is a $90 program that I consider a "DeBabelizer Light". Very convenient and easy to use for anyone interested in managing and manipulating screen shots. www.jasc.com
SIDEBAR: Pretty Pictures Do Not A Good Game Make. I'd rather have a game that is a blast to play than one that looks great and plays poorly. I hope we'll see some good single player and Co-op multiplayer games soon.
| Microsoft||Page:: ( 5 / 6 )|
Over the last few weeks, we have seen a couple of major issues crop up concerning the legal monopoly that is the Microsoft Corporation. The first concerns the Passport concept that Microsoft seems to be shoving down consumers throats. At first they claimed it was going to be used as a simple tool to help you make online purchases. However, Passport now seems to be creeping its way into a whole lot more. Hotmail users need a Passport account, which is odd because it would seem that personal, private email has nothing to do with making online purchases. MSN users now need a passport account, which is again odd, because content browsing should have very little do with making discreet purchases, right?
Now the latest addition to the family has come to light. Microsoft is now requiring users of its ZONE gaming portal to have a Passport account. What you say? What does gaming have to do with secure purchases? Not a darn thing! That is what I've been trying to tell you!
Passport is not designed to be an e-wallet alone. It is also designed as a tool for Microsoft to keep track of everything you do online! It watches your gaming habits and builds a database of what you do and for how long. It watches you surf over their MSN portal and keeps track of what sites you visit, what content you read and how long your stays are. It watches which advertisements catch your eye and which don't. It watches your email patterns to see who you communicate with and where your mail comes and goes. Do you spend time emailing Amazon using your hotmail account? Do you spend time emailing other internet providers looking for better deals? Do you email banks in search of rate information? All of these types of requests can be cataloged and stored in the giant Passport database managed by Microsoft.
Microsoft can use that information to build consumer profiles and in turn use those profiles to target advertising and services directly to each consumer. They can also share that information with third party marketing firms for a fee, generating even more revenue for their overflowing coffers. Why should you be worried? Read on, McDuff...
The second big piece of Microsoft news I've seen relates to security issues with Windows XP and Internet Explorer. We began to hear a few rumblings about a security problem with Internet Explorer, and users were told in the press to update their browsers to help plug a few holes. This is fairly typical, so nobody raised much of a noise about it. Browsers always have issues, so most of us are used to it.
However, the second shoe was about to drop, and drop hard. It seemed that someone had discovered three major flaws in Windows XP, one of which was potentially devastating. So devastating in fact that the company who discovered it kept mum to the press and went directly to Microsoft with the information. They worked feverishly with Microsoft for the next six weeks to come out with a patch, hoping nobody else would find out about the vulnerability before they were able to fix it. Luckily for Microsoft, they succeeded.
So, Windows XP, the most secure operating system Microsoft has ever produced, has a major flaw in it that lets just about anybody gain full control of your computer from a remote internet connection. They can also exploit XP flaws that let them use other peoples machines in DOS (Denial of Service) attacks. They can reroute data from that personís machine to another destination. These are very, very serious flaws indeed, but even worse because of Passport.
Think of it. The more places you use Passport, the more opportunities hackers have to break into your Passport account. The more information Microsoft stores in these Passport databases, the more information hackers will be able to get their hands on. Not just credit card numbers, but Social Security information, drivers license information and a whole lot more. Imagine just how much easier identity theft can be when you combine the pervasiveness of Passport with the vulnerabilities of Windows and the Internet. Why should you worry? Put the pieces together! Then think about all the other security issues Microsoft is not telling you about...
SIDEBAR: People should be more skeptical when it comes to the agendas of some of these huge companies. Who's interests are they going to look out for? Yours, or their shareholders? Please, do some research...
| Endgame||Page:: ( 6 / 6 )|
I may not like Norton 2002 all that much, but I am a die-hard Norton 2001 guy, and wanted to share a little tip with you all in the spirit of new year goodness. There is a program in Norton System Works called WinDoctor, and one of the functions of this program is to scan, repair and clean up the Windows registry. In my experience, this little utility far out-does the Microsoft provided REGCLEAN application and can help keep your system humming along in a much more stable and speedy fashion. For example, after I uninstalled Norton 2002 and went back to 2001, I got an error that a certain DLL could no longer be found. I ran WinDoctor and it not only found the problem, but corrected it in full throughout the registry. Same goes when you change or update drivers, uninstall programs or update system files. One of the best things is that this utility can run right from the bootable CD so that you can work to eliminate blue-screens and error messages even when your system won't boot properly. You don't even have to go into Safe Mode. Not a bad deal at all. I do miss the old days of Norton and Central Point duking out for the top spot, but I do try to find good things when I can. WinDoctor is REGCLEAN on steroids, and it seems to get the job done very well indeed.
As a follow-up to the scanner information I put forth in my last Ramblings, I wanted to throw in this little diddy. I had done a fresh format and install of Windows 98 SE on my 'server' system after testing some Linux and XP stuff, and set it for a COMPACT install to save some time. I installed all the drivers but for some reason, even though the software said it installed successfully, that new Epson 1650 scanner was just not working at all. I could not get any TWAIN registration to be recognized. I tried installing the TWAIN driver by itself, still nothing. It seems that I'm the proverbial bonehead, because after hours of goofing around, I finally went through the mental checklist in my head, formatted the drive and reinstalled Windows 98 SE, looking carefully at each option. It turns out that the COMPACT install does not automatically install Windows 98 SE's Imaging support, meaning no third party TWAIN driver will work on its own. Some scanner drivers may handle this automatically, but others, including the Epson 1650, may not. So, friendly warning to all - make sure to check the basics before blaming the new hardware or software. Even old folks who have been doing this for over 15 years go brain-numb sometimes.
I don't want to rehash the whole cheating thing here, but want to express a personal opinion regarding No CD Hacks. I love these things! I absolutely love them! I sit here with a fast computer and get so used to everything being lickety-split, then get bummed when I have to hunt around for a game CD and wait for it to recognize. It is so darn annoying, especially when you have say 30 or 40 games loaded and you just want to jump in for a few minutes and blast some people in Descent 3 or Serious Sam. I don't consider No CD Hacks to be piracy, especially since I bought and paid for the games. I wonder how many people do?
Copy Protected Music
Bad, bad news for the music fans among us. It turns out that Universal, the ever-growing music company, is going to copy-protect ALL of their music releases by the middle of 2002. Every single CD you buy from Universal or its subsidiaries will be protected with the goal of preventing users from ripping their legally purchased albums to MP3's, making custom music mixes or even making backup copies! I'm all for being legal, but this is ridiculous! I hate this kind of heavy handed tactic! Music companies have been putting the screws to artists for years by taking way too much off the top, and now they are trying to put the screws to dedicated fans as well? There has got to be something we can do about it, but what? I for one have not bought a new music CD in a few months, and I think I'm going to keep that pattern up for a while. Maybe if a large number of music listeners boycott these copy protected music CD's, we can have an impact on their decision. Sometimes consumers just sit back and let these big companies treat them like garbage, but I'm hoping that the situation will be different with music. Music is something that tends to touch people in a deeper fashion than movies and TV. It has been a key part of almost every culture since the dawn of man, in one form or another, and I just can't see people taking this one on the chin without fighting back. Here's hoping!
Until next time, have a great new year and keep your eyes peeled for good bargains!
SIDEBAR: How do you feel about copy protected music CD's? Does the Microsoft Passport program make you nervous at all? Have you been disappointed by recent game demos? What are your thoughts on Aperture Grille vs. Shadow Mask? The Japanese Xbox Controller? Let us know your thoughts in our Comments Section.