Monday, April 25, 2011

Staying Power

Games come and go. Each and every week there's something new and exciting to tempt the attention span of anyone who makes a habit of playing them, and more often than not, new games do just that. They pull us away from whatever we had been playing with the promise of shiny, new graphics, gameplay, or stories and characters.

Of course, there are the exceptions; games that are so good, so well crafted and so deep and re-playable that they pull us back despite such distractions.

Here are a few of my current favorites:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (Windows/360/PS3)

As far as I'm concerned, this game is THE reason to own a hot gaming PC. Sure, you can play it on an XBOX 360 or PS3, but the look and feel of it on a nicely-equipped PC is a big part of what gaming is all about for me. Needless to say, I'm extremely excited for Battlefield 3 this fall.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (Windows/360/PS3)

The best racing game since Burnout Paradise; unsurprisingly crafted by the same developer. The cat and mouse nature of the "Hot Pursuit" mode is a phenomenal gameplay experience that transcends the racing game genre; giving you more to do in the game than simply drive from point A to point B as fast as possible for those unsatisfied with simply racing. Again, play this on a hot gaming PC if you can.

Gran Turismo 5 (PS3)

I know. I know. Forza 3 for the XBOX 360 is a better game from a structural standpoint. But there is something about GT5. It may not have been the end all, be all racing game that everyone was expecting it to be, but it does have merits and the sheer level of car porn in it is unrivaled. The steady stream of patches since its release don't hurt and there's no denying the passion and sincerity of it. Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but I like this game and often find myself returning to it above all others when I'm looking for a simulation racing fix.

Civilization V (Windows/Mac)

Even though the newness of it has worn off and a few design flaws have yet to be corrected in it, there's no doubt that Civ remains the king of the turn-based strategy genre. When I feel that particular itch, I need go no further for relief. Are there problems with it? Indeed there are, but the simple fact is it does more right than it does wrong and there are few if any games out there that can rival its ability to make doing the same thing over and over feel fresh and exciting with each new game.

World of Warcraft (Windows/Mac)

What list of addictive, recurring games would be complete without this one? I have no doubt sunk more time into this game than any other. Whether it's soloing an alt, or raiding with a guild or grouping with friends for a 5-man or some PvP, WoW still offers the best combination of the RPG and social gaming genres. If you're into swords and sorcery, and you want an RPG you can play alone or with friends, for better or worse, there's precious little out there that can hold a candle to it.

Modern Combat: Domination (PS3)

Go ahead and mock me all you want. This PS3 downloadable game is fun and easy to pick up, play, make some measurable progress, and put back down on a whim. It surely doesn't have all the bells and whistles of better shooters like Battlefield, but for a cheap and easy thrill, it's hard to beat.

Left 4 Dead 2 (Windows/Mac)

When you want to shoot things in the face and you don't want to have to worry about levels or kits or perks or any of that nonsense, Left 4 Dead 2 is your game. Sure, zombies are a little played out, but the zombie-apocalypse theme is almost inconsequential to the gameplay. The zombies might as well be Teletubbies. In fact, there's a mod for that. :)

Borderlands (Windows/Mac)

This game is on the list for one simple reason: Co-op. With support for up to four-player co-op throughout the entire single-player campaign plus extensive DLC packs and support for multiple playthroughs, there are literally hundreds of hours of satisfying FPS/RPG gameplay to be had here. True, there's room for improvement, but that's what sequels are for. Borderlands 2? Hell yes, please! :)

Worms (Windows/360/PS3/iOS)

Worms: Reloaded for Windows is the current incarnation I'm playing, but I've been playing and enjoying this delightfully-twisted take on the classic, turn-based "artillery" game genre for years on a variety of platforms. In fact, I probably own more versions of this game on more different systems than any other.

Are there other games I love as much or more than these? Sure there are. There are fantastic games that I spent five or 10 or 15 hours playing through and "finished," or that I enjoyed for a good, long while then got burnt out on and haven't returned to recently. This isn't meant to be a definitive list; just a few recommendations for games that I've personally spent a lot of time and had a lot of fun with and have periodically felt compelled to revisit over the past several months.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


As someone who's built more than a few PCs from parts, I occasionally get the itch to tinker with things; sometimes even when they're not meant to be tinkered with, but that's another story.

This time, I decided to focus my attention on my PS3 and the often-painfully-slow 5400 RPM hard drive that the system ships with.

True, for the most part, the default PS3 hard drive gets the job done, but as someone who plays a lot of downloaded Playstation Network games and Blu-Ray-based games like "Gran Turismo 5" that require massive hard drive installs and usage, I felt like it was time to give the system a little more oomph.

In and of itself, replacing the hard drive in a PS3 is a pretty simple and well-documented process, involving just a few tools and a few hours of time (most of which is spent backing up and restoring data to and from USB storage). The interesting part for me was the question of what type of 2.5" SATA drive to use as a replacement. After careful consideration of several 7200 RPM, 10000 RPM and Solid State drives, I decided to go with a 90GB Corsair Force CSSD-F90GB2-BRKT that I snagged from newegg for $180. A little pricey I know, but I wanted to be as sure as possible that the drive would perform well in terms of speed and stability, and the Corsair had all the right features and reputation for quality.

Why SSD you might ask?

  • SSDs use less power, which generates less heat inside the console.
  • SSDs have no moving parts, so the console being moved or bumped can't affect the drive; though the Blu Ray drive is of course still susceptible to such movement or jarring.
  • SSDs make no sound. Not that you'd hear it over the monster fans in the PS3 anyway. :)

Basically, with SSD, you get the performance of a 10,000+ RPM drive with far less heat and power consumption than even the stock 5400 RPM models.

Having said that, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of:

SSD is still a relatively new technology when compared with traditional 2.5" internal hard drives and much like those drives were when they first came along, larger capacity SSDs can lack the level of performance and stability necessary to happily interact with a device like the PS3 whose operating system doesn't support advanced SSD control and maintenance functions like TRIM. In short, TRIM allows space on the drive to be reclaimed at the time of deletion as opposed to waiting until the deleted blocks are about to be written to again. Without TRIM, an SSD has to spend twice as much time writing to parts of the drive that had previously contained other data. This isn't a huge deal on the PS3 because much more reading than writing takes place on the PS3's hard drive, but it's something to keep in mind.

Some SSD drives (such as the Corsair I used) have built in controller firmware that help to keep the drive in an optimal state even without support from an operating system, but the performance and capability of such functions varies from drive to drive, so it pays to do your homework. Different SSDs from the same manufacturer that represent different iterations of the technology can perform very differently depending on where they're being used (i.e. a drive that works great in a PC might not work so well in the PS3 if the PS3s OS doesn't support all its capabilities and there are no built in drive functions to pick up the slack).

So far, I've been very happy with my decision to upgrade the hard drive in my PS3 to an SSD. Most hard drive-based games load about twice as fast, some games like GT5 that load large, contiguous blocks of data at a time are even faster, and the general performance of anything the PS3 does that involves the hard drive (including the Netflix app and the XMB) has increased noticeably.

 I'm a bit concerned about the long-term performance of the drive in terms of speed as the overwriting of existing data blocks becomes more common over time, but so far (having already patched a few games) I haven't seen anything to worry about.

I'll update this post as I use the new drive over time, but so far so good.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Free is Good: Need For Speed World (Windows)

There are a lot of free-to-play or "freemium" games these days. From MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online to FPSes like Quake Live to strategy games like Travian. In fact, with a little effort, it's possible to find enough quality, free gaming content to satisfy all but the most hardcore of gamers; especially if you have access to a computer that's less than five years old and a broadband internet connection.

One sub-genre of gaming that's typically not well represented in the free-to-play movement is racing games. That's something Electronic Arts has been attempting to change with its game Need for Speed World, which is a surprisingly deep and detailed racing game set in an open world populated by scores of players and comparable in terms of scope and design to those featured in mainline Need for Speed games like Carbon and Undercover.

Another area where World shines is in the initial experience, which is surprisingly polished; sporting a thorough and well-paced introduction that quickly gets players into the game and up to speed on the driving, upgrade, power-up and competitive aspects of the game. In just about an hour, I felt like I had a good idea of how the game worked, how to progress in it and how to leverage the social aspects of it, which is something that a lot of other games in the free-to-play space often struggle with.

In a similar fashion to other EA play4free products like Battlefield: Play4Free, NFS: World doesn't attempt to push any boundaries in terms of visual presentation, instead opting to provide a solid multiplayer experience based on tried and tested technology from previous games in the series. It's no surprise that World bears a striking similarity to the Carbon and Undercover NFS games as it was coded by the same development team (Black Box) that was responsible for those games and indeed uses a lot of audio and visual assets from them such as police radio chatter and the general layout and design of the open world city.
As a result, NFS: World isn't likely to win any beauty contests when compared to current AAA games, but it certainly doesn't look bad and can be configured to run on a wide variety of PCs, which allows it to potentially appeal to a much wider audience.

There's some weirdness in World, like having to set the in-game camera as a preference under "Options" rather than being able to switch it on the fly or the game's tendency to ignore the presence of a game controller and present tutorials based on default keyboard controls despite USB controllers like the XBOX 360 Controller for Windows (for example) working just fine without any configuration, but these are minor quibbles and certainly no reason not to give the game a try.

The driving and handling mechanics of the game seem a little dumbed down; perhaps to accommodate players who may be using keyboard controls for lack of a better option, but they aren't too far off what fans of the NFS series have come to expect and I found them quite easy to adapt to despite having spent time with more simulation style racers of late. The controls and car handling aren't as snappy as say NFS: Hot Pursuit, but they get the job done and don't really get in the way.

Bottom line: If you're looking for a good free-to-play/freemium racing game, you could do a lot worse than Need for Speed World.