Lightning Review – F.E.A.R. 2

August 23rd, 2009 @ 0:41

By Coren

I’m not sure I feel comfortable making F.E.A.R.2 my first review since, basically, last year. F.E.A.R. 2 is not a Great Game —though it’s not a bad game either— and there are most definitely many other games that are much more worthy of my time, but I’ve decided I wanted to start writing these reviews more often, and F.E.A.R.2 just happened to be the first game I finished. I’ll keep it brief, though.

F.E.A.R.2 is a big-budget FPS that tries to be original by mixing in a touch of horror and supernatural. It is a graphically impressive game, and the action is fun and visceral. F.E.A.R. 2 tries to break the “bullet-time kills” + “cheap scares” routine of its predecessor by adding the occasional turret shooting scene and sniper map. This works reasonably well. The horror element is also pretty alright, thought it’s the jump-scare kind of horror, not the psychological kind (which is a good thing or I would never have finished this game). And the game also tries to come up with an interesting plot. It tries to, but it fails. Hard.

Actually, I’d argue that the plot is the one thing that stops F.E.A.R.2 from really rising above the rubble of other FPS games. F.E.A.R.2 picks up a few minutes before the first game ends. It continues the story of Alma, a girl with psychic abilities who turned on her captors. While this story may not be highly original, it is enough to keep the player interested. The occasional flashes of Alma and her mental world really help drive up the expectations. Most of the story, though, is told through pieces of intel you conveniently find lying around everywhere you go. This is an old technique, but in the case of F.E.A.R. it somehow feels unbelievably fake. One of the “bad guys” just happens to forget their PDA on a table and the PDA just happens to contain just that e-mail in which he or she explains his or her evil plans? The “intel” technique is so obvious it breaks suspension of disbelief, and the “Alma flashes” are often so vague that they don’t really tell you anything at all.
Case in point, the ending, which is absolutely bewildering. It was brought on in such a rushed and confusing way that instead of feeling shocked, you actually feel frustrated and disappointed. Once you realize what the ending was about, though, you’ll see that it was probably pretty interesting, on paper.
As it is, F.E.A.R.2 simply doesn’t get its point across, and all that’s left is lots of pointless shooting, the occasional jump-scare, and a ruined climax. Which is a real shame, considering how well the technical part was done. If only they had spent a quarter of that graphics budget on decent writers…

In the end, F.E.A.R.2 is a pretty-looking, fun but ultimately unsatisfying shooter. A missed opportunity.
I guess it still gets a 7 out of 10. Here, have a screenshot:

F.E.A.R.2

A Friendly Warning to Cheap-ass Moral Gamers Like Myself

August 13th, 2009 @ 14:42

By Coren

I don’t download games illegally. Ever.

I have my reasons. For one, smaller or indie developers need all the money they can get, and there’s simply no reason not to pay for (reasonably priced) gems like Braid or World of Goo. I feel less concern for big-name developers like EA or Ubisoft, but there my argument is that I’m contributing to the survival of PC gaming. Said big-name developers have been whining for a while now about piracy making developing for the PC unprofitable. Whether there’s any truth to this statement or not, it’s a fact that many of the games I was looking forward to playing on the PC have suddenly turned “console exclusive”, and the piracy argument often pops up as explanation.

The logical consequence of “I don’t download games illegally” is that “I buy all my games”. And buying stuff costs money, of which I have only limited supplies. So I have this policy of only buying good games. Games that have been getting good reviews overall, or good reviews from trustworthy sources, or games made by developers I know and trust. (Also, games that are not real-time strategy, because I found out that I don’t enjoy those no matter what critics say. Possibly because I’m no good at them.) Even then I almost never buy the games at full retail price as there are many ways to get them cheaper, even if it means waiting a few months for the price to drop or for a deal to come up.

But once in a while there’s this game you want to play even though you know it’s most likely not very good and even though the price just won’t drop. Yet paying 50€ for something that’s not very good is not an option. What do you do then?

It just so happens that someone on IRC mentioned that they had gotten their hands on one of those new ‘guilty pleasure’ games —legally— for about 15€. Naturally, people in the room asked for more info, and what followed was a link to G2Play and an explanation about Steam price tiers and how games get sold for less in other countries. Allegedly, the website manages to sell stuff for cheap because they buy their games in cheap-tier countries. The guy assured us that this was perfectly legal —though this type of import is somewhat of a grayish area— and that the site was otherwise perfectly legit.

Having been bitten in the ass by Steam’s less-than-friendly pricing plans very recently*, I ignored my inner warning bell and decided to give it a try. I purchased one of those Ultimate Pointless Timesink games that aren’t worth the full price but never get marked down. (I’ll let you guess which game it was.) For about a fifth of the retail price I promptly received a keycode which I could directly input into the developer’s download manager. To my surprise and relief, this key actually worked, and it also made it through the insanely convoluted activation procedure(s) without any problems, proving that it is indeed a legitimate key. (The draconian DRM did cause me a bit of trouble, though. This had nothing to do with the keycode in question, but with the DRM software itself. Fuck you, Securom.)

At this point I was wildly enthusiastic about the website, since apparently they did sell legitimate keys which allowed you to procure games through legitimate channels. The keys most likely weren’t stolen or automatically generated since they hadn’t been revoked yet. The only downside was that their catalog was pretty limited, so I looked around and found out that OnlineKeyStore is another one of those sites run by the same people. Second warning bell right there: two websites that do the same thing run by the same people usually point to less trustworthy businesses. But since my first purchase turned out to be legit, I was hopeful that the second one would be too.

This second site happened to have this middling AAA first-person-shooter I’d wanted to play for a while, at a price I found perfectly reasonable. The website told me it was available through “digital download”, which further reassured me. (I’d been avoiding the ones that presented themselves as backup keys, since you’d need the actual disc —or an “illegal” download— to play those.) I completed the payment, promptly got the serial, but no download link or instructions on how to get the download.
I contacted their staff and I got a reply. They gave me two links to warez sites. This, apparently, is their idea of a digital download.

Of course, here’s where it gets harder. Is it legal to download a game from illegal sources when you own a (supposedly) legal serial? And more importantly, am I okay with this? Another solution would be to borrow the retail disc from a friend, make a copy and play the copy with the legit serial. But that would require circumventing copy protection, which is more trouble that it’s worth and technically not very legal either.

I’m okay with getting a game directly from the developer/editor’s download manager (e.g. EA Download Manager, Steam) because your purchase is validated throughout (download authorization > game activation), but having to download warez to use my license with is taking things too far into the gray zone.

Conclusion: If you’ve stumbled upon this post looking for info on G2play or OnlineKeyStore, unsure whether or not you can trust them, this should give you a pretty balanced picture. Their keycodes are most likely real and not stolen, they work, they’re cheap and the support is pretty responsive… BUT. I would refrain from buying anything that is not branded as available through EA Download Manager or Steam, as you’ll most likely be forced to turn to illegal download sites anyway, which is probably what you’ve been trying to avoid all along. Shop from G2play and OnlineKeyStore at your own risk. Personally, I’ve decided I prefer to wait a few extra months to get games from a real store.

 

*I bought a big Indie Games pack on Steam when it was on sale, expecting to get gift copies for all those games I already owned on Steam so I could send them to friends. Which was a reasonable expectation given the fact that this exactly what they did for Half Life 2 and the Orange Box. Turns out they don’t give you gift copies after all, which means I got a slightly less interesting deal than I thought I’d get. Not to mention the fact that the pack cost 30€, but also 30$ in the US, which makes absolutely no sense.

The PC – One Year Later

March 26th, 2009 @ 22:05

By Coren

Remember how I built my very own PC about a year ago? Well, it’s time to look back on my hardware and software decisions and to decide what was a good idea and what I’ll avoid doing again in the future.

Let’s have a look at the original configuration:

  • Antec Performance One P182 case
  • Corsair VX550W PSU
  • Gigabyte P35C-DS3R motherboard
  • 4GB of Corsair TWIN2X 6400C5DHX DDR2 RAM
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3.0Ghz CPU
  • Thermalright Ultra-120 Extreme
  • EVGA Geforce 8800GT 512MB Superclocked
  • 2x Western Digital 500GB HDD
  • Samsung S203P DVD-burner
  • Auzentech Prelude 7.1 soundcard
  • IIyama B2403WS 24″ widescreen

During the past year, some things have changed in this setup:

  • The Corsair VX550W PSU has been replaced by a 650W PSU. Not because I actually needed the extra power, but because I had to build a PC for my mom and the 650W was actually cheaper than the other PSUs at that time, so I just swapped it with mine since she’d have even less use for that much power.
  • The RAM has been replaced with sticks of the same brand and capacity, only with lower latency (4-4-4-12 instead of 5-5-5-18), for the same reason as above.
  • I’ve added an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray drive
  • I’ve also replaced the standard case fans with Noctua NF-S12-800 fans, which is the same type of fan that I bought for the CPU cooler. I bought a fan controller to go with them.
  • I had to replace my old Altec Lansing speakers because they broke. Got a set of Logitech X-540 5.1 speakers instead, because they were cheap.
  • Bought a Wireless card.

The rest is pretty much the same as it was a year ago. As a reminder, I’m running Windows Vista Ultimate 64bit.

Let’s break it down, then:

The great decisions:

  • The screen. 24″ seemed like overkill when it first arrived, but I don’t think I could live without it now. The 1920×1200 resolution means I can display Blu-ray (or other 1080p material) in full, and it makes for a huge and handy workspace. I’ve had some minor problems with stuck pixels, but those were of a temporary nature. The colors and contrast are great, none of that washed-out feel you get with some cheaper PC screens.
  • The graphics card. A full year has passed, and I think the GeForce 8800 series are still close to being the best deal on the market. I can still play all new games on highest detail at 1920×1200 (with the exception of lame benchmark-games like Crysis, but that doesn’t really count), and I don’t see why anyone’d need to upgrade to a newer generation of cards just yet.
  • Those fans. It seems like a weird thing to do, replacing case fans, especially since the original fans were pretty decent to begin with, but I’m actually glad I did it. The Noctua fans have two settings and on the lowest setting these fans are pretty much inaudible. When I turn them all down it’s hard to tell the PC is even on, and that’s great for watching movies or listening to music. The fan controller looks all pretty, too.

The good decisions:

  • The case is great. Real handy to swap things around in, but most of all, does a very good job of keeping the noise inside and the heat outside. It’s heavy as fuck, though.
  • 4GB of RAM was the right decision, especially now I’m using some rather memory-intensive programs for my internship. The particular type of memory might not have been such a wise choice, but I’ll get back to that.
  • The CPU. You may remember I was considering spending an extra 100€ to get a quad core instead, but this E8400 is plenty. What’s more, I’ve managed to overclock it to 3.6Ghz on standard voltages and it’s perfectly stable. I think that CPU cooler has something to do with that, too.
  • Vista. No, really. I had some problems adapting to it at first (especially the UAC feature), but I’ve gotten used to it and overall I must say my experience with Vista has been better than my previous experiences with XP. The difference isn’t huge, and I can imagine that other users might prefer to stick to XP which is less resource-intensive and less annoying about security, but for me personally it’s been working great. When I go back to XP now I actually miss some of those small features they added to Vista. I’ve also had a chance to work on UNIX-based systems lately, and while it’s nice to feel in control of the smaller details of your system, it happens way too often that stuff just don’t fucking work. Which has not been the case with Vista.

The not so great decisions:

  • The Auzentech Prelude. It’s a great card and all, great sound quality, nice features… But I had bought it for two other reasons beside sound: 1) Eventual HDMI expension card which would allow you to hook up your PC to a reciever/TV and 2) Linux drivers in the works. Both of these features have now been dropped. They’ve given up on Linux drivers, and it seems to be impossible to get this card to work under Linux, especially not if you want multichannel audio. And even though I don’t have a receiver/HDMI capable TV for now, I intend to get one eventually, and it sucks that I’ll have to change cards. I’m not quite sure what I should have gotten instead of the Auzentech, though, since no other cards on the market that I know of offered/pretended to offer great sound quality and future HDMI compatibility…
  • The low-latency RAM. I should have just kept my original normal latency memory. The difference in performance is not noticeable at all, and my system seemed to be less stable since I replaced the sticks. Every two weeks or so it decided to freeze up on me so I had to reboot, and then it would set the RAM latency settings in the BIOS back to factory defaults. I haven’t had any freezes in a while, but I can’t be sure the problem’s really gone. Like I said, the only reason why I got this RAM was because it was actually cheaper than the regular kind, but next time I’ll just play it safe.

The rest of the hardware seems to be working fine and I haven’t noticed anything exceptional or excruciating about it so far. The DVD and the Blu-ray drive work like they should, so do the hard drives and the mainboard. I might get an extra HDD eventually, though, if only to use as backup.

Bottom line: one year after purchase, my system still runs great and feels brand new. Next time I might pass on the fancy memory and the expensive audio card, but I have no regrets.

In other news, you can now follow me on Twitter. I don’t use it all that much because it feels like I’m talking to myself, but with your help, that might change…

End of the First Semester

February 6th, 2009 @ 16:39

By Coren

Hard part’s over, or so I hope.
The first semester’s exams ended last week and even though they weren’t easy, I hope I did well enough. It was a bit like starting from scratch. My linguistic background wasn’t of much use except in one or two courses, and my knowledge of literature obviously didn’t help me at all. Speech Recognition and Neural Computing were especially difficult. Speech Recognition was all damned lies and statistics while for Neural Computing the hardest part was figuring out what all the formulas meant. But I think I did reasonably well on both.

Anyway, next week the second semester starts, and I’ll have two or three courses squeezed into one month’s time, and in March I start my internship at the CNTS (Centrum voor Nederlandse Taal en Spraak) in Antwerp. I’m not sure how much of the project I’m allowed to reveal (though I don’t know all that much about it myself), but let’s just say it’s something like Façade, only with more “serious” applications. I guess I’ll be working on the natural language interface (the part where you type in “regular” text and it gets parsed and interpreted) though I really don’t have any specifics at this point. We’ll see.

I’m pretty sure the hardest part about the internship will be to get up at 6 every morning. Antwerp is like 1h30 by train, not counting the delays and the time it takes me to get from the station to the research center. But it’s only three months, the project sounds interesting, and I might even be able to do some work from home occasionally, so that should alleviate the pain.

All this studying business doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to do the things I enjoy doing. On the contrary, I’ve finished quite a few games, seen quite a few series and movies, listened to quite a bit of music. It’s just that I haven’t found the time or energy to write about it. World of Goo, Left 4 Dead, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Slumdog Millionaire and Revolutionary Road were definitely titles worth talking about. I still might, actually.
I can also let you know that Far Cry 2 has nothing to do with the original Far Cry and isn’t worth your money, and Dead Space‘s control scheme will foil any attempt you make to enjoy the game…

In case you were wondering…

January 9th, 2009 @ 12:44

By Coren

… I’m cut off from the rest of the world and have been so for two weeks.

This time my ISP decided to switch to a new network. What network or why they’re switching is not clear. They also failed to warn their customers of this procedure. And why the fuck is switching networks taking over two weeks?

Anyway. I signed with Telenet. It’s more expensive, I’ll be limited to 30GB per month, but al least I’ll have TV and a reliable ISP. Problem is that the line won’t be activated before February 18th, which is a long time to be stuck without any Internets.

I’m not sure if I’ll cancel my current contract right now or next month. If there’s a chance that they manage to restore my connection by the end of the month, it might be worth it to stick around, but if not then I guess I’d just be wasting money…

Bah.