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End of 2007 Computer Game Goodness

January 29th, 2008 No comments

As is tradition in the gaming industry, every year developers push to get their new games out in the fall just before the holiday season.  This year saw a plethora of new games, many of which were big name high quality titles.  In this post I’m going to briefly review some of those titles made for the PC.

Age Of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties

The second expansion for Age III, The Asian Dynasties was not done by Ensemble Studios but instead by Big Huge Games.  It shows as the game art does not feel quite as polished as the art of the original game and the expansion.  Despite this it is still a very good looking game as Ensemble’s work is always top notch and hard to match.  The game adds 3 new civilization to the game: The Japanese, The Chinese and The Indians, as well as 3 new campaigns, one for each civilization.  Each civilization plays quite differently than any other previous civilization which helps to spice up the series a bit.  The maps of the campaign look great and are very well done.  The new random maps added are very well done as well and are a lot of fun to play.

Overall The Asian Dynasties is a very good expansion and is a must have for any fan of the series.  The new additions to the game add enough variety to keep you playing Age III a little longer as you wait for Age IV.  I must warn you though, unlike the original game and the first expansion where easy was not hard, but not easy; when you play these campaigns in easy it truly is easy.  Unless you really just want to blow through the campaign, do yourself a favor and play it on moderate.

Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The latest in the call of duty series, COD4 takes place in modern day rather than the all too familiar WWII.  Thank God!  Overall, this is a Great Game!  The graphics are excellent, the battles are ferocious, the AI is good and the action is almost non-stop!  The game features some truly memorable moments.  My favorite part of the game is the C-130 Gunship mission “Death from Above.”  You sit at the gunners position of the plane looking through the night vision/thermal site and rain munitions down on the enemy.  It looks exactly like the NV/thermal images of precision bombs dropping that you’ve seen on TV.  I mean exactly like it!  I only wish the mission had lasted longer.  I could have done that part for a good 2 hours or more.

While COD4 is a fantastic game I do have a couple gripes with it.  The first and biggest one is that the game is short.  I mean damn short!  The entire game took me approximately 6 hours to beat.  Perhaps it is because they spent a lot of time on the multiplayer as I hear that it is actually really good, still I like to see my single player games offer me at least 15-20 hours of play time.  This one wasn’t even close.  My second gripe has to do with the game play.  In this game, if you stay in one place, no matter how many enemies you kill, more will keep coming until you advance to the position they are flooding in from.  Because there is no break in flooding of enemies, this can make advancing extremely difficult and frustrating to do and you will end up dying A LOT before you beat this game.  What ticks me off about this the most though is I feel like they did it this way simply to make the game take longer to beat, rather than do the proper thing and add more content.  I mean yes it’s cool to see tons of enemies pouring at you and taking them down, but we don’t need it in every scene.

Despite my gripes this is still an excellent game and I highly recommend it however, if you don’t plan on playing the multiplayer be sure to wait for a sale to pick this one up as the single player is too short to warrant spending $50 ($60 for you console players) on it.

Crysis

Crysis takes place in the not too distant future on an Island off of North Korea.  A distress signal has been received from the Island and you and the rest of your special forces team has been sent in to extract the distressed personnel.  You and your team are equipped with the latest in secret military technology, a nano-suit that offers you super human abilities.  The suit can be set on the fly to one of four modes: superior armor, superior speed, superior strength, and cloak.  Armor mode lets you take bullets without taking damage as long as your suit has energy (no worries it regenerates).  Speed mode lets you run extremely fast and is great for escaping a chasing army.  Strength mode gives you the ability to jump really high and through things really far (like enemy soldiers).  Finally cloak mode turns you invisible similar to the predator; great for sneaking up on enemy soldiers.  This suit combined with an interesting array of weapons makes you a lethal force to the unsuspecting North Korean Army.

Overall this is an excellent game.  The graphics are amazing and it arguably has the best graphics of any video game currently out (the only real competition being Unreal Tournament 3).  The jungle island scenes are absolutely beautiful and the lighting effects and explosions are magnificent.  Let’s just say the game is very pleasing to the eye.  The game play is very good too.  The game is semi-linear meaning it has a set path of where to go but, due to the large map sizes, how you get there is up to you.  You can drive your Humvee down the road to your destination, stick to the woods and get there on foot, or grab a boat and assault the destination by water.  The combat is great fun.  Between the suit, your arsenal of weapons, and a variety of vehicles you have plenty of fun ways to take out the enemy.  The game features a fair number of destructible objects as well.  All of the shanty type buildings can be blown apart/knocked down and all of the palm trees can be mowed down.  This is great fun when you get on an MG and the enemy is advancing from the trees or vice versa.  Think the mini-gun scene in Predator.

The game is not without its flaws though.  The AI could be better although it isn’t bad.  It just has it’s moments of stupidity.  There also is occasionally some problems with the computer controlled tanks where for some reason they’ll go flying into the air for no apparent reason.  These problems only happen on occasion though and don’t really take away from the game play.  I actually found them to be quite funny and in fact enjoyed them.  Another problem is that this game requires a beast of a system to play if you want to turn the effects up.  Fortunately I have a beast of a system so this wasn’t too much of a problem, but even on my system, at 1920×1200 with settings on high I’d find moments where the frame rate would dip a bit more than I’d like.  Finally, I didn’t care for the way the game took a turn about 2/3rds through.  It’s not that the story went bad, it’s just that I was still really enjoying taking out North Koreans and then suddenly I was never fighting a North Korean for the rest of the game.  At least one more big map with NK’s would have made me happy.

While the game does have some problems, the only one I would say that is big enough that should keep you from buying the game is the system requirements.  Sorry, but this game just is not going to play well on your two year old machine.  Get the game when you upgrade.  Other than that, if you like shooters, then get this game.  The single player is great fun and though I haven’t tried it online yet, the multi doesn’t look too shabby either.

The Orange Box

The Orange Box is the latest in Valve’s marketing scheme of packaging multiple products into one well… box.  Unlike the Half-Life 2 Steam Packages that came out when HL2 was released, this one is actually a really good value.  In the orange box you get the following games: HL2, HL2:Episode 1, HL2:Episode 2, HL2 The Lost Coast, HL2 Deathmatch, Peggle Extreme, Portal and Team Fortress 2.  In this review I’ll briefly cover each of the new Items.

Half-Life 2: Episode II

Better than Episode I.  Not to say Episode I was bad but, most might have found it too cramped and it seemed like Alyx did all the work and all you had to do was stand back and let her shoot.  Episode II is not like this.  Instead most of the game is in open outdoors and there’s plenty for you to shoot.  Yes Alyx is still in it and doing a good amount of shooting.  The difference is you actually won’t mind having her there.  When she’s around the bad guys you encounter are typically a lot tougher than those found in Episode I so having her there is not a bad thing.  When the baddies are the simpler kind of zombies and head crabs you’re usually on your own.

Overall this is a very good installment in the Half-Life series.  The graphics aren’t the latest gen, but they are still very good plus you’ll still be able to play the game even if you have an older computer.  Play time will generally run you about 8-10 hours.  That’s longer than COD4 and this is only an episode, not a full game.  If you’re a fan of the Half-Life series then this is a must have.

Portal

Two words: Instant Classic!  What seemed simply to be a simple puzzle game meant to showcase the Source Engine’s Portal ability turns out to be a game pop culture hit.  In the game you must complete a series of puzzles using the portal gun to interact with the environment all while being instructed/taunted by the hilarious computer voice named Glados.  To tell you more would be to give away some of the priceless moments of the game.  This game is completely worth it and every first person shooter fan and even non shooter fighter should play this game.  Half-Life fans should definitely play this as you will find the game has ties into the HL world.  Go get this game!  The cake is not a lie.

Team Fortress 2

Well after what?  8 years? Team Fortress 2 I finally out.  If you saw the screenshots and videos of Team Fortress 2 back in the day when it was clearly still on the HL1 engine you might remember that the game was going to be something like what we might call today a Counter-Strike, Battlefield 2, Team Fortress Hybrid.  TF2 as it is now… it’s nothing like what we saw in that media.  Today Team Fortress 2 is more true to its roots and is really an upgraded TFC.  TF2 has a new look to it.  The characters are inspired by old corny spy movies, but feature cell shading and a cartoon appearance akin to that of the movie Toy Story.  The combination works well to give the game a unique and fresh look to it.

Classes remain the same however, weapons have been varied from class to class and grenades have been removed except for the Demoman’s grenade launcher.  Some people will find this removal a welcome change, especially on Dustbowl as you can no longer just grenade spam the choke points, while others will not as it forces them to relearn how to play each class.  When I started playing TF2 I leaned more toward the later but, due to the change found some of the other classes to be really fun, such as the Scout.  I would never play as the scout in TFC because he was so lightly armored and wasn’t good for killing anything.  In TF2 he is still lightly armored but, now he has the best shotgun in the game, moves really quickly and has a double jump which makes him really hard to hit and chase, plus he has a nice bat for a melee weapon.  The bat is probably the most fun as it actually fairly easy to get a kill with it and the sound it makes when you hit someone is great.  What’s great fun is to run up on an unsuspecting heavy weapons guy and bat him down.  He won’t go down in one hit but, you swing fast enough to get enough hits in pretty quickly and a chaotic situation he probably will not react to you fast enough to save him.  Bat kills are really rewarding!

Overall TF2 is a good successor to TFC.  It’s fast paced and easy to jump into.  It’s different enough from TFC to be fresh and similar enough to be familiar.  If you’ve been looking forward to TF2 and expected a game similar to that in those old screenshots then you might be disappointed but, if you try out this new fortress I’ll think you’ll find it works pretty well and you’ll forget about what it was going to be.

Unreal Tournament 3

The latest in the Unreal Tournament series UT3 offers something none of the previous UT’s did… a storyline!  Don’t think much of this though.  It’s really just kind of a weak tie in for why you’re fighting and why you can respawn.  It’s still arena fighting just like any other UT except now you have a cause.  The core of the game is still the multiplayer aspect.  The game features two “new” game modes.  I put new in quotes because in all honesty they aren’t new.  The “new” Total War mode (I think that’s what it’s called) is really just the same as UT2004’s Onslaught mode with the addition of an orb around you can carry around that will cap the points instantly.  The other “new” mode is Vehicle CTF which is it’s titled is just Capture the Flag with vehicles.  While adding vehicles to CTF does seem like much, what it does is allow for CTF on a lot bigger maps and is actually pretty fun.  The game also feature some new vehicles like these alien walker things which are pretty fun but, perhaps the best addition is the hoverboard.  With huge maps running all the time can be a real drag.  The hoverboard can be pulled out at any time to help you get across the map.

The biggest thing about the new UT is the graphics.  They are awesome!  The new UT does it again by impressing us with eye candy.  The graphics are on par with Crysis (although Crysis’ may be a little better) but it doesn’t require near as much system to run it.  My brother’s computer is pushing 2 or more years now and it runs fine on his system while still looking good.  On my system I have everything cranked to max with res set to 1920×1200 and thus far I’ve only experienced slow downs in one map.  All the rest of the maps play nice and smooth.  It really is quite impressive what they’ve been able to do with unreal engine and it’s no wonder so many games are licensing it.

Overall I found I like the game, but it isn’t different enough from UT2004 for me.  If you’ve never played a UT or at least haven’t since the original, then this game might feel new to you but, if you have… it’s going to feel the same.  If you’re a big UT fan or at least a big deathmatch fan then this game is definitely for you.  For people who can’t get enough UT, the fact that this game is really UT2004 with prettier graphics and some gameplay improvements won’t bother them and they’ll be pleased.  If you haven’t been a huge fan of the UT series or are looking for something new then you may want to hold back and if anything catch it on sale.  The vehicle CTF is pretty fun addition but, it’s definitely not enough to justify full price.

Categories: Computers, Games Tags:

New TV

January 21st, 2008 No comments

If you haven’t heard, I’m in the market for my own place.  I was thinking somewhere around a May time frame however, my parents started getting involved and it’s looking more like a now time frame.  Gee, does it sound like they want me out?  Anyway, when I move out I’m going to need a nice TV.  Can’t have a living room with some non 1080p television sitting in it after all.  I had planned to buy one in a few months, just before moving out, but seeing that the move out may happen sooner than later I went ahead and bought that TV now.  You know, while I’m not making mortgage payments and can afford it.

20080121_IMG_0170I picked up a Samsung 46″ LCD TV; model LNT4665F specifically.  It’s Samsung’s highest end 46″ LCD other than the new ones that just came out which boast a 120 Hz refresh rate, which btw is a joke and a waste of money (I can tell you why later if you really want to know).  I got a pretty good deal on it off NewEgg for about $500 off the big box store price.  Add the fact that I didn’t have to pay any sales tax and that shipping was free and I saved even more. 

Now for how much the TV cost I could probably have gotten a 60 inch DLP or SXRD online, but I decided to go with the smaller TV for a couple of reasons.  First off is  shear size.  While the screen being larger is not a problem the added depth a projection TV has is.  It’s just easier to fit a flat TV into places than a non-flat TV and depending on how big the place I get is, that can be a huge factor.  Add in the 65 pound weight the LCD has and the TV is movable by one person where as a projection TV… well is not.

The second reason and for me the biggest reason I chose the smaller LCD over the bigger DLP/SXRD was for the sharpness.  When it comes to sharpness, there is nothing currently available on the consumer market that is sharper than an LCD.  The reason LCD’s are the sharpest is because LCD’s are the only TVs in which the pixels are directly on screen itself.  DLP/SXRD and other projections have the problem of that the pixels are projected on screen.  The image is produced on a small “screen” at the back of the television set and is projected onto the front screen.  This projection of the pixels blurs the edges of them and thus softens 20080121_IMG_0168 the whole picture.  Plasmas… well I’m not sure exactly how they works, but from looking at them closely I still find them not as sharp.  Yes both projections and plasmas still look great and HD movies will look amazing, but take a look at some fine print text on screen.  What may be a little tough to read on these TVs is easy to read on an LCD.  If you’ve ever hooked a computer up to your TV then you know exactly what I mean.  The text on the TV just is not as clear as it is on the monitor.  Since an LCD TV is essentially a computer monitor, bam!  How can you get any sharper?

Now me being the type of person who will hook his computer to the TV (see previous post about Media Center), having things super sharp is very important.  Also being a gamer, this sharpness is great to have with my PS3 as it makes even the finest detail HUD perfectly readable on screen.  If you’re a gamer then LCD is really the way to go as games often have plenty of fine detail elements where you need the sharpness to really see it.  Of course all this sharpness does come with some minor drawbacks.  Because the image is so sharp, you can see every single flaw in the video if you take a good look.  If you’ve watch broadcast HD stations, particularly any kind of sporting event, and you’ve looked close enough you have probably noticed digital artifacts caused by the relatively low bit rates of broadcast HD television.  If you haven’t, then go watch a you tube video and notice the bad image quality there.  It’s the same thing.  The LCD, because it’s so sharp, does not blur these away like a projection or plasma does.  Because of this, low bit rate video and standard def will actually look better on a projection or plasma.  Now pop in a Blu-Ray or turn on INHD… those Bikini Destinations girls never looked so good!

Categories: Electronics, Sit Reps Tags:

Media Center PC Part II

January 10th, 2008 No comments

The DVR box that I built consists of the following parts.

  • MSI P35 Platinum Motherboard
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4 GHz
  • XFX GeForce 8400 GS PCIe Graphics Card
  • A-Data 2GB (2 x 1GB) PC6400 RAM
  • Western Digital 500 GB Hard Drive
  • Lite-On 20X DVD Burner
  • Vantec 510 Watt Power Supply
  • Logitech EX110 Wireless Desktop Mouse and Keyboard
  • Microsoft Media Center Remote
  • ATI TV Wonder 650 Pro TV Tuner Card
  • Windows Vista Home Premium
  • DVI to HDMI cable
  • Optical Audio Cable
  • 1/8" Mini plug to RCA Stereo Jacks

 

I didn’t include the computer case in the listing as I just used a spare one I had.  There are cases made specifically for Media Center boxes.  They have the same footprint as your average AV/Stereo receive, they’re just taller.  I may get one of these later, but for now the mid-tower case works fine.

The power supply listed was one I already had.  510 watts is more than you’ll need, but I wouldn’t recommend going under maybe 350 watts.

For such a cheap wireless keyboard and mouse, the Logitech EX110 has remarkably good range.

There are Media Center remotes made by other companies available.  I can’t tell you how they work, but I can tell you they’re usually more expensive.  Media Center is by Microsoft.  Might as well use the Microsoft remote.

I haven’t tried any of the other brands of TV tuner cards so I can’t recommend any others.  I can tell you though that the ATI TV Wonder 650 Pro is one of the best if not the best TV tuner card available and I can guarantee it will work with Vista.

You definitely want to go with Vista on this one.  Window XP Media Center just isn’t as polished.  You have two choices though for your Vista edition: Home Premium and Ultimate.  Other editions do not include Media Center.  You probably have no really good reason to select Ultimate over Home Premium for your Media Center box so do like I did and save some money.  Go with Home Premium.

The DVI to HDMI cable is what you’ll use to connect the box to the TV.  The DVI side connects to the box and the HDMI side to the TV.  Do not buy this cable from regular store as you’ll get ripped off.  You can get one cheap on Newegg.

The optical audio cable is for connecting the box to an AV/stereo receiver to take advantage of 5.1 audio.

The mini plug to RCA cable is used for sound if you don’t have an AV/stereo receiver or don’t want to use it.  You can connect this cable from the standard audio out jack on the box to the audio inputs on the TV.

Categories: Computers Tags:

Media Center PC Part I

January 9th, 2008 No comments

While this was meant to be another addition to the Big Update(s) series, I decided for archival purposes it would be better to give it a more descriptive title.

So far I’ve covered ATV’ing, Airsoft and the Job.  In the intro update I mentioned something about computer stuff, but I can’t specifically remember what I was thinking of at the time.  It may have had to do with the GeForce 8800 GTX and 850 watt power supply I put into my main PC, which are sweet btw, but I’m gonna guess it probably had something more to do with the Media Center PC I built.  You all have probably heard of Windows XP Media Center edition and if are up to date with the latest Windows offerings, know that Media Center is included in both Home Premium and Ultimate editions of Windows Vista, but chances are you don’t really know what it is or at least had any experience with it.  Basically Media Center allows you to turn your PC into a DVR box/media playback device.  You can record and playback television shows with it and use it to playback movies (DivX, DVD’s etc), pictures, and music all from an easy to use interface that was specifically designed for use on a television rather than on a computer monitor (although it looks just fine on a monitor as well).  There is a fairly cheap remote control that goes along with it as well to make it as much as possible like using a TV device and not a computer.  After some time playing around with Media Center on my whoopty computer I decided to finally build a system specifically for it.

For a while I had wanted a DVR box and multimedia playback device to use with my TV.  When my buddy got a DVR for his cable I saw the convenience a DVR box could offer and I wanted one.  On screen TV listings with select and click recording, no tapes to mess with, instant fast forward and rewind, pause and rewind live TV… It was pretty nice.  I had two problems with it though; there was a subscription fee to go along with the box and the only way to get the recorded content off the box was through an analog output to a VCR or some other analog recording device.  While this isn’t a huge problem with standard def analog content, it is a major problem with any kind of digital/high def content as you are forced to lose quality when you transfer the video off the device.  I did know of something though that could alleviate both of these problem; a Windows Media Center box.

I had bought an HDTV turner card for my main system some time ago and used it with Windows XP and the included playback software with no problem.  It worked well enough to watch TV, but scheduling recordings only worked so well and the interface wasn’t the greatest.  It definitely wasn’t setup to take the roll of a DVR box.    I knew about Media Center and thought that may be a good solution so I loaded up a spare hard drive with a trial of XP Media Center Edition and gave it a whirl.  It worked, but it wasn’t that great.  The interface was kind of weak, it was fairly buggy and had a tendency to crash.  Some time later Vista came out and I knew specific editions included a new version of Media Center so I decided to give that a try.  The new Media Center in Vista was great!  They cleaned up the interface, killed the bugs and added a lot of features.  Best of all; it didn’t crash!

From what I saw it looked pretty promising so I decided to pick up the Microsoft Media Center remote off Newegg and see how well it worked.  I plugged the IR receiver into the USB port and immediately Vista recognized it and installed some drivers for it.  I pressed the Green Media Center button in the middle of the remote and Media Center started right up.  The remote worked perfectly with it!  Every button was functional and did just as it was labeled.  The system just worked!  I had found a great solution to my DVR box woes.

Of course this great working system was setup on my spare gamming PC which isn’t exactly geared for the Media Center roll.  The system has plenty of processing power to be a Media Center box, problem it also sucks up a lot of power and is fairly loud.  For a box that would be right next to the TV and on a lot this is definitely not ideal so I’d really need to build a system specifically for it.  This meant buying new parts which isn’t exactly cheap.  It took me a while, but after missing a ton of HDTV shows I had wanted to see I finally convinced myself to spend the cash and build it.

It cost a bit to build it, but I got some pretty good stuff for it too.  I picked up an MSI motherboard with the latest Intel P35 chipset, Gigabit LAN, and an HD audio chipset.  I made certain to get a board with optical audio out so it would be an easy hook up into the surround sound system.  I picked up a 3.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, put that into my main system 😀 and took the 2.4 GHz Core 2 Duo  from my main system and put that in to the Media Center.  I picked up a GeForce 8400GS graphics card for the system.  I could have cheaped out a bit more here as I don’t need even this much graphics power since it isn’t a gaming system, but the GeForce 8400GS has full hardware h.264 video decoding  which means it’ll be perfect for down the road when I put a Blu-Ray drive into the system and is great now for high def h.264 encoded videos downloaded off the web.  I finished off the system with 2 gigs of ram, a DVD burner, a 500 gig hard drive and a copy of Vista Home Premium.  With 500 gigs I should be able to record about 80+ hours of 1080 HD video.  In the future I may pick up a second 500 gig drive and put the two into a RAID 0 array creating a single high speed 1 terabyte drive giving me over 160 hours of recording time, but it probably won’t be necessary.

So the box is now hooked up to the HDTV and running full time as a Media Center box.  I’m really liking the thing.  The guide in Media Center works great, makes it easy to find and record your favorite TV shows and looks way better than the guide on that crappy time warner DVR box.  The recorded shows listing is way better looking in Media Center as well and shows a lot more listings on a single screen making it much faster and easier to find the specific recording you’re looking for.  The controls for rewinding and fast forwarding work just like the time warner box, but the Media Center remote also includes a an additional two buttons labeled skip and replay.  A single press of skip jumps the video ahead 30 seconds while a single press of replay skips back 10 seconds.  This makes skipping commercials a lot easier than hitting fast forward and trying to hit play at the right time before your show returns.  If you’ve ever used a DVR box and tried this you know what I mean.  You fast forward see your show on and hit play, but then you have to hit rewind because you already passed up a minute or more of it since the commercials ended, but of course on the rewind you end up going too far so you have to fast forward again and so on.  The skip and replay button adds granularity to the process.  With the skip button you won’t go any farther past the start of your show than 30 seconds and with the replay button you can easily get within no more than 10 seconds of the start.  Sounds complicated, but compare the two methods and you’ll see how easier the skip replay method is.

What’s really great about the box though is that since it is a PC, it’s so much more than just a DVR.  Beside just being able to record and playback television shows, I now have an easy and convenient way to get my entire music collection playing on the surround sound stereo.  I also have a great way to show people pictures and videos when they come over.  This Christmas I ripped a bunch of Christmas CD onto the box and had the music playing on it over the stereo while a slide show of old Christmas photos played on screen.  My family really seemed to enjoy it.  It really is a pretty slick setup.

 

In the post following this one I’ll have a list of the parts I used and some comments to help you get setup if you’d like to build your own Media Center Box.

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