Archive for June 22nd, 2012

Batman: Arkham Asylum PS3 Review

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atman: Arkham Asylum was shockingly different on PlayStation 3. I’d played it for hours on the 360 but even my keen eye for system specifics I hadn’t seen this one coming.

I had originally played Batman: Arkham Asylum on the Xbox 360 and it was the game that made my Xbox 360 experience. Both console and game were purchased at the same time in a high street store. I usually do all my gaming shopping online but there was a deal not to be missed so I took advantage. Clutching my HMV bag (ed: other retailers are available) on the bus-ride home as if it contained a Millennium Falcon, the whole experience awakened my inner eleven year old and the journey could not go quickly enough.

It’s a constant, and sometimes annoying, characteristic of my system centric leaning that when I play a new game on a specific system first, the two become synonymous. It was no different with Batman: Arkham Asylum and the 360. This third-person action-adventure belonged on my Xbox 360.

From dropping the disc into the tray and hearing the tell-tale blings of unlocked achievements racking up as I played the game through this felt like an experience I could have on no other system. I completed Arkham Asylum three times and still returned in the months that followed, after all there are still a few of The Riddler’s trophies that I had to find.

But then my Xbox 360 went the way of many before it. Three little red lights signaled that the party had come to a premature end. The Dark Knight took his cape and gadgets and went to live at someone else’s house. Once bitten twice shy, so now I own a PlayStation 3.

Give or take a few exclusive games, the Xbox 360 and PS3 are extremely difficult to tell apart when compared side-by-side. So, ordered another copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum (Game of the Year Edition this time) I wasn’t expecting it to be different.

Initially things were as I expected, the game plays pretty much exactly the same and is every bit as wonderful and engaging. Guiding Batman through the halls and grounds of Arkham Asylum with the PlayStation Dual Shock 3 controller is just as intuitive and satisfying.

But then my girlfriend, who had been watching, held the box up and tapped at a little sticker “Play As The Joker”. I paused, saved, and went straight to the PlayStation Network store to download this free DLC. In that moment the PlayStation 3 version jumped leagues ahead of the 360 – I could play as The Joker.

Within minutes of walking The Joker, bandy-legged and giggling, through Arkham’s stricken corridors, I knew that despite looking, sounding, and being priced almost identically, this PS3 version had the edge. It was this more than the PlayStation 3’s ability to play the game in 3D that really got me excited.

The Joker DLC also offers a variety of challenge maps where you must beat up a variety of foes within certain parameters and within a time limit. These are admittedly similar to the challenges Batman faces, but controlling the Joker’s pratfalls and Three Stooges style of fighting was a novelty that again extended my enjoyment.

As he strides around Arkham Asylum as if he owns the place, which in many ways he does during this game, the music takes a pleasantly sinister turn and is reminiscent of being trapped inside a haunted fairground fun-house.

Also, the differences in the Joker missions aren’t just aesthetic. His pockets are bulging with gadgets to put Bruce Wayne’s efforts to shame. Stunning foes with a squirt of poison from the trick flower on the Joker’s lapel begins with the enemy actually falling for the Joker’s charms and stooping to have a fatal sniff.

Particular favourites of mine are the controllable, exploding, wind-up, chattering teeth. Hide in a corner and let them loose on the smeared hospital floor and you can steer them to the heels of your target before: Boom. Cue insane cackles as the Joker dances by the fallen guards.

The Joker DLC, for a Batman fan like me, is every bit as re-playable as the main game and I found myself guiltily thanking the shoddy construction of those early Xbox 360’s, for if mine hadn’t died I would never have discovered the joys of the Boxing Glove Gun. And everybody should experience that.

I’m keeping my eye on system centric features on Gotham City, but so far all I’ve stumble upon is the “Play as Robin” pre-order bonus that’s for both systems. I’m sure there will be differences and when they emerge I’ll let you know how systemic they are.

Kelsey Jackson writes the Systemic Gamer column.

“Systemic reviews are all about choices. Remember when you had none? Now that I have a range of consoles, when I play a game I want it to fit the system it’s on and make the most out of that.”

 

 

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Lego City: Undercover Review

L
ego City: Undercover is not just a family-friendly Grand Theft Auto. It elevates the Lego series out of the shadow of movie licences and empowers the Wii U gamepad as a means of wish-fulfilment.

Put simply, Lego City: Undercover will be a system-seller if they manage to live up to the promise of the early glimpses. An open-world crime adventure without the prostitution and extreme violence would normally seem to be a fool’s errand, but in the world of Lego vulgarity is washed away by warm humour, corruption represented by a pile of gold studs and violence reduced to a slapstick chortle as minifig pieces litter the ground.

Added to the driving, running and flying action is the different disguises your character can wear. This presumably replaces the method in other Lego games in which different characters have different abilities. Here, the hero will be able to access areas and skills based on their current costume.

The Wii U gamepad will be put to great use. Not just representing a dump for the inventory and map, but mirroring an in-game item acting as your communicator and personal gadget. One scene shows the pad being used as a first person thermal camera to identify hidden criminals. It’s like putting an actual Batman gadget in your hands and then giving you a world in which to use it. Wish fulfillment in gameplay doesn’t get any better than this.

There have been other Lego games which have strayed away from movie licenses, but these have not been from the incredibly talented Travellers Tales’ studios and the poor quality that has resulted in those games is a testament to how well TT know how to deliver. It will be nice to see the imagination of the bona fide Lego games series unleashed from the shackles of a major licence and given an open world to exploit.

Of course Lego City: Undercover should not be hampered by the problems of many open-world games. The genre usually struggles to adapt between vehicle and walking sections, but the Lego games are built upon a foundation of fun platforming and it seems as though the city will be full of great design making exploration everywhere great fun.

The best thing about Lego City: Undercover appears to be that it is far more than an sandbox clone minimised using Lego figures. It is a Lego game, writ large and opened out to take advantage of a whole city and the freedom it will offer players.

Lego City: Undercover is currently planned for release on the Wii U around the system launch towards the end of 2012.

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Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City PS3 Review

R
esident Evil: Operation Raccoon City turns the tables as we fight for “the man” rather than humanity. Cosying down with The Umbrella Corporation felt a little odd at first, but I soon got into the swing of things.

Raccoon City is resurrected by Capcom and Vancouver-based developer Slant Six Games in the form of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. Although leaving the main games in the series to do the real story work, it still offers an unusual twist in the form of team-based third person shooting.

Operation Raccoon City is set bang in the middle of the infection zone of the titular city. You can play as any of the Umbrella Security Service as they get sent around the city to obliterate any remaining evidence of Umbrella’s seedy dealings with the incident — which also means murdering any people who have an inkling of the unpalatable truth.

This is essentially the Hunk mission from Resident Evil 2 writ large. Those that found that hidden level in the second game will remember the storyline. Here it is extended considerable as we learn of yet another tangent to the franchise’s main trajectory.

The basic premise is that Umbrella Corporation realises that their G-Virus scientist William Birkin plans to sell the virus to the Government. Their response is to send in a team to try and stop the virus getting out. As you may imagine, within minutes (quite literally) the whole world is on the edge of extinction when Birkin gives himself the virus, mutates and wipes out the team.

Each of the available characters have different abilities and weapons, that much is expected. Less familiar though is the way the story is told from the perspective of the corporation. Playing through these events batting for the other side is a really interesting experience — particularly when fan favourite characters like Claire Redfield, Leon Kennedy, Jill Valentine are targeted by the corp.

Out of this ethically-murky cauldron climb series’ favourite mutants. Tyrant, Hunters, Lickers and the deadly Nemesis all step up to thwart “the man” at some time. Players need to avoid too much contact with these enemies. If their infection gauge fills up it’s game over — anti-viral sprays and medics being the only way to drain the meter.

In addition to the main story, Operation Raccoon City also delivers a four-player cooperative campaign, a four-versus-four competitive game mode and a multiplayer heroes mode. The sheer variety on offer here turns what might have been a footnote to the Resident Evil cannon into an engaging and interesting addition.

For fans of the series this is an essential tangent to tide them over to the arrival of Resident Evil 6. For the rest of us, it’s still a good chance to enter the world of corporate mismanagement and viral weapons.

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Silver Lining: Sonic the Hedgehog and a history of disappointment

Oh, Sonic, where did you go wrong? Sega’s iconic mascot has become a bit of a running joke in recent years, and for good reason. His games haven’t been very good. The best I can say about any of them is that about half of the levels are good in any given release. Sonic Unleashed was only enjoyable during the non-werehog parts, Sonic Generations was fun during the old school sections, and even Sonic Colors had more than its fair share of clunky, slow levels that broke up any ability for me to fully enjoy it. The further Sega seems to stray from the formula of the original Sonic games, the worse things seem to get.

One would think that would mean that the two episodes of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 would be pretty good, then. After all, they’re ostensibly the most faithful reproductions of the classic 16-bit platformer. Sonic doesn’t talk, he’s lacking all the incredibly stupid friends that have cropped up over the years, and he’s running through a variety of stages so he can beat up on Robotnik at the end. Right down to the order of the worlds, they’re essentially recreations. So why aren’t they as celebrated as Sonic’s original adventures?

It would be easy to write it off by stating the original Sonic titles haven’t aged well, therefore the new games in the series don’t have a chance. I’d love to say that the folks at Sonic Team simply tweaked the balance of the game too much and managed to break what wasn’t broken. But really, I don’t think either of those things are true. I can still enjoy myself with Sonic 2, and despite the objections of the internet, I don’t think the way either of the Sonic 4 games play is that far off, despite a few new abilities and game mechanics.

I think we’ve all been spoiled by the 3D Sonic Adventures games. That’s not to say that they’re any better than their 2D brethren. Have you gone back and played Sonic Adventure 2 lately? Other than that “Escape from the City” song, which might be the best song ever written, I don’t think it’s very good. Both Adventures games seem to have aged far worse, and much faster, than their Genesis predecessors.

Yet, they’ve been equally influential in the way we play our platformers. I’d argue that what we fell in love with about Sonic 1 and 2 was not a sense of speed, but fluidity. Sprinting, rolling, and bouncing through levels was a great feeling, not because it was fast, but because it made you feel like a gameplay expert. The period in which those games were released was one of punishing difficulty. Just off the arcade golden years, where games were designed to chug quarters, the 8- and 16-bit era retained that mentality. Games were meant to be struggled through, to be played repeatedly until mastered. I feel like an unskilled idiot when going back to those games, and I’d imagine that I’m not alone.

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Facebook will change ad service to settle lawsuit

Facebook Inc has agreed to allow users more control over how their personal information is used in its “Sponsored Stories” ad feature, part of a deal to resolve litigation against the social networking company.

The value to Facebook members resulting from the changes is about $103 million, in the opinion of one economist hired by the plaintiffs. But the amount Facebook will actually pay to settle the case is just over $20 million, according to court documents filed on Wednesday.

A “Sponsored Story” is an advertisement that appears on a member’s Facebook page and generally consists of another friend’s name, profile picture and an assertion that the person “likes” the advertiser.

Five Facebook members filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the social networking site, saying it violated California law by publicizing users’ “likes” of certain advertisers without paying them or giving them a way to opt out.

The case involved over 100 million potential class members. Under the terms of a settlement agreement filed on Wednesday, Facebook members will be able to control which content can be used for Sponsored Stories. Facebook agreed to maintain these changes and other new disclosures for at least two years, according to court documents.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the changes to “Sponsored Stories” are worth $103.2 million, based on an economist’s analysis of the revenue each ad brings to Facebook. Those figures were redacted in the court documents.

A Facebook representative declined to comment, and an attorney for the plaintiffs could not immediately be reached.

Facebook has agreed to pay $10 million to organizations devoted to educating people about how to use social networking technology safely. Groups set to receive money include the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, according to the court documents.

Facebook will also pay an additional $10 million for plaintiff attorneys’ fees.

The settlement agreement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California. She must weigh whether the deal’s terms adequately benefit class members.

In the lawsuit, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying that a trusted referral was the “Holy Grail” of advertising.

In addition, the lawsuit cited comments from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, saying that the value of a “Sponsored Story” advertisement was at least twice and up to three times the value of a standard Facebook.com ad without a friend endorsement.

Koh said the plaintiffs had shown economic injury could occur through Facebook’s use of their names, photographs and likenesses.

Plaintiff attorneys argued in court filings on Wednesday that the policy changes and charitable awards will constitute “significant benefits” for the class members.

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Twitter suffers sustained outage

SAN FRANCISCO: Two service outages within the course of several hours rocked microblogging platform Twitter on Thursday, as users worldwide reported significant down-time and slow service across both Twitter’s website and mobile applications.

The San Francisco-based company declined to say whether a technical failure or a malicious attack was to blame.

North American traffic levels for Twitter.com sharply plummeted on two occasions between 8:30 a.m. PDT (1530 GMT) and 11:00 a.m. PDT (1800 GMT), according to data provided by network analytics company Sandvine.

The first outage lasted between 8:30 a.m. (1530 GMT) and 10:00 a.m. (1700 GMT), data showed.

Twitter acknowledged the disruption in a mid-morning blog post that was continually revised as the service resumed, only to fail for a second time before 11:00 a.m.

“The issue is on-going and engineers are working to resolve it,” the company said in its last blog update.

Twitter, founded in 2006, was plagued in its early years by frequent outages as its servers struggled to handle the ever-rising volume of tweets generated by users worldwide.

The company, which has been under pressure to demonstrate a viable business model, has also made an emphasis on improving its site reliability in recent years. But the service, which hosts 400 million tweets daily, still experiences periodic disruptions.

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Acer slates Microsoft’s hardware push

LONDON: Acer, the world’s fourth largest PC maker, has dismissed Microsoft’s chances of becoming a rival to Apple by building its own devices and urged its software partner to focus on its new operating system instead.

Microsoft announced on Monday that it would design and sell its own “Surface” tablets to showcase Windows 8 and take on Apple and Google in devices that are capturing more and more of the computing market.

It kept PC makers largely in the dark about its plans, according to sources, marking a radical departure from its previous close collaboration with its hardware partners.

Oliver Ahrens, Acer’s senior VP and president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said Microsoft was trying to copy some of Apple’s strategy, but he was doubtful it would succeed.

“I don’t think it will be successful because you cannot be a hardware player with two products,” he said in an interview, adding that the former darling of the tech sector would also have to adapt its brand to compete with Apple.

“Microsoft is working with two dozen PC vendors worldwide, including the local guys, whereas Apple is alone, it can more or less do what it wants,” he said. “Microsoft is a component of a PC system. A very important component but still a component.”

He was also worried that Microsoft would shift resources to building a consumer hardware brand and retail operation, and in the process take its eye off the ball in making sure Windows 8 was a success for the PC industry.

“Instead of enhancing the user experience for Win 8 (…) they open a new battlefield,” he said.

“I worry that this will lead into a defocus internally for Microsoft, and then we have to suffer because we are working with their products.”

OLYMPIC PERFORMANCE Taiwan-based Acer, which ranked fourth in PC shipments in the first quarter, has had its own problems after failing to adapt to changes in the market including in particular the rise of Apple’s iPad last year, but Ahrens said the group was now getting back on track.

He said Windows 8, which does not yet have a launch date, was “extremely important” for Acer, and it would have four or five devices tied in with its launch, including tablets and a high-definition slimline “Ultrabook” notebook.

Ahrens said the new products would be supported by an advertising campaign focused on the user experience rather than the specifications of the machines, which has been the traditional approach of PC makers.

“Acer wants to be more about value than volume,” he said, adding that the company needed to do higher end products to lift the status of the whole brand.

Acer, an Olympics sponsor, will also be in the spotlight next month as the PC provider to the London games.

“Everything is run by Acer – the scoring systems, the internal IT,” said Acer UK managing director Neil Marshall. “It will demonstrate that we have the commercial ability to deliver this type of project.”

Ahrens said the second quarter, which ends in nine days, would see about a 50 percent rise in revenue in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, as the group continued its recovery from the lows of a year ago.

The region accounted for 37 pct of revenue in the first quarter, according to a company presentation.

“Q3 will be more challenging because it’s a transition quarter from Windows 7 to Windows 8,” he said.

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RIM says first new device won’t have keyboard

The first BlackBerry device running Research In Motion Ltd.’s new operating software will not have a physical keyboard, only a touch-screen one.

The BlackBerry 10 software will be offered on devices with physical keyboards in the future, but RIM spokeswomen Rebecca Freiburger declined to say when. RIM is expected to start selling BlackBerry 10 touch-screen devices this year.

Top-selling smartphones these days, including Apple Inc.’s iPhone and several running Google’s Android software, also lack physical keyboards. But RIM’s attempts in the past to offer touch-only phones have largely flopped.

Many corporate users have stuck with the BlackBerry solely because of its physical keyboard, given a perception that it’s harder to type emails on a touch screen. The BlackBerry 10 system has already been delayed about a year, and with additional delays to get a physical keyboard, those people may not be willing to wait any longer, especially as the iPhone makes greater in-roads in corporate settings. Those users may simply get the new iPhone expected this fall.

RIM’s hopes hang on the BlackBerry 10 system, which is meant to offer the multimedia, Internet browsing and apps experience customers now demand. The Canadian company is preparing to launch the new software later this year, just as North Americans are abandoning BlackBerrys for iPhones and Android devices.

Colin Gillis, an analyst with BGC Financial, called it puzzling that RIM isn’t leading with its strength by releasing a keyboard BlackBerry first.

“The physical keyboard is the most dominant item that separates out Research In Motion from its competitors,” Gillis said. “If you are not playing to your historical strengths you may find it more difficult to get traction.”

Gillis said there is a spot in the market for RIM but the company “just got to get it together.”

But Jefferies analyst Peter Misek said BlackBerry 10 is all about touch and closing the gap with Apple, so people should not be surprised that the initial model will have only a touch screen.

“They are going to build a BlackBerry device with a keyboard, but it’s just going to take longer,” Misek said. “Maybe it will come a month or two after, but frankly it might be already too late.”

RIM once dominated the corporate smartphone market but failed to adapt to the emerging “bring your own device” trend, in which employees use their personal iPhones or Android devices for work instead of relying on BlackBerrys issued by their employers. As the movement caught on, the iPhone made the BlackBerry look ancient.

RIM’s future is far from certain as its flagship devices rapidly lose market share to flashier phones. With more than $2 billion in cash, bankruptcy seems unlikely in the near term. But RIM’s U.S. share of the smartphone market fell sharply from 44 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2011 according to market researcher NPD Group.

RIM said Wednesday it has started laying off employees as part of a restructuring plan aimed at saving about $1 billion this year.

RIM’s stock fell 25 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $10.08 in midday trading Thursday.

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Samsung launches Galaxy S III in US, taking on Apple

NEW YORK: Samsung launched its Galaxy S III smartphone in the United States Thursday after fending off a legal challenge from rival Apple, which claimed it infringed on iPhone technology.

The phone, which uses the Android operating system, received generally positive reviews but analysts said it may not be an “iPhone killer” for the South Korean manufacturer that leads the global mobile phone market.

Apple and Samsung are fighting patent battles in more than half a dozen countries. Each company accuses the other of infringing on patented technology in smartphones or tablets.

But Apple last week backed away from a bid for a temporary restraining order to block the import of the Galaxy S III into the United States, even though the patent case is still pending in a California federal court.

The newest Galaxy is being offered by several US carriers, and Samsung hopes to win over some loyal iPhone owners with the smartphone’s features.

USA Today’s Edward Baig called the Galaxy S III “a top-notch Android handset.”

“Most human beings will like the Galaxy S III, as I did. After all, it’s a phone designed for us,” he wrote.

Hayley Tsukayama of The Washington Post called the Samsung device a strong contender with an impressive design slightly slimmer than the iPhone.

“Is it an iPhone killer? Let’s call it a worthy contender,” she wrote.

Wired magazine’s Nathan Olivarez-Giles called it “Samsung’s most ambitious smartphone yet,” but said it fell short of the iPhone and failed to outperform the HTC One X among Android handsets.

“As a whole package, the S III simply doesn’t feel like a finished product. It could use more polish, more thought, and a more elegant user experience,” he said.

The Galaxy S III has so far been launched in more than two dozen countries, mainly in Europe and the Middle East. It will be available in 145 nations by July.

The third version of the Galaxy S series offers face-recognition technology and improved voice-activated controls as well as a more powerful processor that lets users watch video and write emails simultaneously.

It can detect eye movements and override the phone’s automatic shutdown if the user is looking at the screen.

Samsung is now pinning its hopes on the S III to further erode its rivals’ market share before the expected new version of Apple’s iPhone 5 this year.

More competition will be coming from new Windows-based phones, and Google is expected to expand its offerings though its newly acquired Motorola Mobility.

Samsung still leads the global smartphone market. According to ABI Research, the Korean firm sold 43 million smartphones in the first quarter to 35 million for Apple.

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