From iPhone to Windows Phone 7 - The Wrap-Up Pt3

It's been a short while since I've told you tales of my defection from the iPhone to the Windows Phone 7 - I had my reasons, so many reasons. I think the main one was the iPhone 3G I owned just didn't cut it when it came to gaming. Infinity Blade was denied to me, Sworcery was a jittery mess and the Game Center treehouse raised its rope ladder if I even dared to look at said treehouse. I was an iPhone owner without a custom home screen background and denied the simpliest of pleasures such as the ability to stop my phone spastically jumping from horizontal to vertical configuration with the slightest of tilts. I admit there is bitterness in my heart from owning the iPhone. There has been good moments, but mostly moments of woe and frustration - especially from a gaming perspective.
My swtich to the HTC WP7 hasn't been entirely smooth - a free music download offer which failed to materialise due to some O2 cockery, Zune making it difficult to grab and play podcasts easily and - perhaps the most frustrating - Zune deciding to stop my album playback after the first played song, only for me to coax it to play the next one. It's a common-ish problem and one I suspect may be fixed with the new Mango update. Recently there was an incident where the volume would magically rise to maximum or lower to complete silence, the physical volume control being no use in that situation. Technology should work, right? It's as easy as pressing a button. I suspect that in this day and age, the complication of smartphones innards lead to more chance of conflicts and crossed wires; there are times when I miss my crusty old Nokia 3310.
This will be the last entry of my time with the Windows Phone 7 - hopefully it's given some insight behind the platform and the comparison with the older model of iPhone which I was lumbered with for what seemed like an eternity. Here's an easy-to-digest round up for your tired eyes -

The Good

  • It's a lovely phone to behold. I'm defintiely more confident using this new phone than the old one; the bigger screen makes it feel easier to navigate and use the keyboard. Oh, the keyboard. It works perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch. It works even better with the auto-correct, which gladly takes a paddle to the fetid arse of iPhone's auto-correct. I've never, never had an issue with it so far. In comparison, my iPhone's auto-correct was turned off six months into using it. I was fed up of the forced change from "ill" to "i'll" or "hell" to "he'll". The auto-correct suggestions are such a long way off from what was intended on the iPhone compared to the more proficient and confident manner in which Windows Phone will give you a passive selection of suitable words to choose from. It just works.
  • Achievements on the toilet. I am a gamerscore whore. I admit it, there's something nice about seeing a number slowly rise according on videogame progression. I think it's a primal thing which goes back to the arcades where high scores were lauded and applauded by many. Mobile gaming and toilets seem to go so well together - a quick five minutes of gameplay and the familiar sound of that achievement icon popping up at the top of the screen. Recently I grabbed Minesweeper for free and it's a perfectly fine free game with some ads - but more importantly - achievements. They still rule my gaming heart, I don't care if you think me as a superficial arse of a man. I really don't.
  • Try before you buy. This is a killer app and it's something I'm surprised that Microsoft isn't singing from the rooftops. Anything on the Windows Phone Marketplace can be downloaded and tried - much in the same way you can download trial versions of games on Xbox Live. The is also the case with the Xbox Live Windows Phone titles, but this also spreads to everything. It's a great feature and one which suddenly seems strangely absent from the iPhone's App Store. Saying this, the App Store still offers much cheaper purchases but at least this trial feature takes some of the sting out of making an informed purchasing decision.
  • The visual experience. The HTC HD7 has a much more expanded screen to play games on compared to the iPhone - this is particularly noticeable when playing games which involve virtual controls; I often found I was obscuring the action on my iPhone when I had to employ this method of controlling characters on-screen. The visuals also appear more crisp, though this isn't a comparison to the retina display of the iPhone 4 which I've yet to check out with a videogame. My jaw did drop somewhat when I saw the lush, loving visuals of Fable Coin Golf; it does 3D a lot better than my iPhone 3G, although it is a much newer handset. It also goes without saying that I'm a big fan of the simplicity of the Windows Phone Metro UI interface - let it also be known that I bloody love the ability to delete that sodding Stocks app tile. The iPhone in its Apple-y way will not let you get rid of this app from your home screen. You have to have it, even if you don't give two hoots about the Stock Exchange. If I'm brutally honest, the screen suffers in sunlight although that's on the default "automatic" Brightness setting - it fares much better when the Brightness is switched to High.
  • Xbox Live Integration. It's pretty sweet, all things considered. I had a tinker with the Xbox Live Extras app (which will become part of the whole Xbox Live experience when Mango comes along) and was amazed to see a pretty accurate representation of my 3D Xbox Live avatar on-screen. I changed some clothes, added a baby dragon I forgot I unlocked in Keflings - and said dragon flew into frame and my 3D avatar interacted with him/her/it. It is pretty mindboggling and it's definitely a plus point for the phone, although I'm not sure if I can play online with others using the phone - a curious oversight for a service which prides itself on connecting people through collected multiplayer gaming experiences.
  • Windows Phone does Facebook better than Facebook. Both my iPhone and Windows Phone 7 Facebook app experiences are basically the same - the mobile version of Facebook fucking sucks. It's bug-ridden, slow and stodgey. I have used Facebook on the new phone, but the integration of Facebook into the People and Pictures tiles is a thing to behold. You can check out a social feed in the People app of the phone and like or comment to your heart's content. It's what I use Facebook for these days anyway, so this is a great thing. I also loved how the phone used Facebook to help populate my contact list - including the mobile phone numbers of those foolish enough to include them in their profile. It would be swell if the same integration could have been achieved with birthdays too - or at least have the ability to add a birthday to the calendar from the People tab. 
  • Zune. The Zune experience which excludes the teething troubles I've had with podcasts and sporadic album brainfreezes has been a much better one when compared to iTunes. I think it's definitely a PC thing - iTunes on PC always has felt like a product which was designed for Mac first and foremost. It's not advanced much either from early incarnations - I'm sure there's 10 year old code knocking about in there somewhere. Zune, on the other hand, is a much more accessible and faster experience in not just navigating the interface, but also syncing the phone. There's been no confusing iTunes-esque error messages to speak of - you plug the phone in, sync stuff to it and unplug it again. It doesn't feel like the phone is being took over and horrible things are happening within. I'm also a Zune Pass holder - an all-you-can-eat buffet of music streaming for a monthly fee. I've amassed quite a collection of albums which I can easily sync to the phone and listen to on the go. It's great because it doesn't feel like I'm spending a fortune on music - and although I don't "own" these tunes, I would gladly rather pay for the access to a huge library of music. The only downside to the Zune Pass I can see is that newly-released titles are immune to being downloaded with the Zune Pass, instead asking for Microsoft Moon Points instead.

The Bad

  • Live tiles not as live as they could be. I grabbed the official Microsoft weather app a week ago - it looks functional and does the job, but there's an absence of a live temperature update on the tile itself. Even more confusing is the tile comes in a turgid brown colour and not the theme colour which the phone is set to. What I thought set the Metro UI from the iPhone is this live functionality. On the iPhone, it seems like the weather is always sunny and at 23C. The Xbox Live tile is fun but not entirely functional - while my avatar will dance and knock about the logo, there's no notifications for messages or gamerscore either. I know the live tile stuff will get more, er, lively with the Mango update, but it's a strength which MIcrosoft needs to capitalise more on to be more desired.
  • Not a stellar line-up of games or apps. I admit, the Windows Phone Marketplace is a strange place. There's the main freeway of known brands - the Xbox Live titles have those casual branded experiences you expect to find on the iPhone - Bejeweled Blitz, Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Flight Control... the list of the total number of these games pales somewhat next to the more established App Store's selection. If you dare to navigate away from the professionally-produced app tiles of Xbox Live, you soon find yourself in a world of amateur artwork used to promote suspiciously-titled gaming experiences. These tiles never look nice on an expensive new phone screen - it kind of reminded me of the indie games part of Xbox Live. I'm sure there are games out there which could be the most amazing games ever, but I guess I've been rendered into a snob who likes his games shiny and confident. The apps selection is slowly improving and there are the usual suspects - Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare - but there are also some baffingly selections of several different apps which do the same thing. One example is the BBC News app which works perfectly well but is considered totally unofficial. 
  • Marketplace needs more pimpage. There are a vast selection of apps I'm totally unsure about on the Marketplace - when you visit there from the home screen, you will get a pretty barren selection of suggestions as to what to check out. I was informed there was a Yell app on one panel of the Marketplace - just the Yell app, mind you. No other apps. In comparison, the App Store thrives on feeding you a constant stream of possibilities and then will effortlessly give you more. I'm sure there's a fair amount of crap on the App Store to avoid too, but the fact there are more professional app choices on the iPhone makes it easy for the App Store to divert your attention from those whore-filled alleyways.
  • Feeling like a third class citizen. The Windows Phone 7 is a shiny new thing and not as established as the iPhone or Android - this is a cold, harsh fact which I often face when I see apps for iPhone and Android advertised without a care in the world for lesser mortals with less-supported phone OSs. It hurts my heart a little when I know I can't use Penny Arcade's new Decide-o-Tron on my HTC. There needs to be more exclusive Xbox-y games for the phone - I'm curious to know why Microsoft hasn't concentrated more on mobile versions of Xbox titles. Give me a mobile version of Gears of War! I don't care if it'll be lavish 2D, it'll be a nice bit of compensation for ignoring the iPhone's game library.
  • Speaker. I'm not a big fan of the external speaker of the HTC - it feels a bit more whiney when playing music compared to that of the iPhone. The headphones which came with the HTC, on the other hand, are much, much nicer than those of the iPhone. They sit in the ear more snuggly and have a much more richer sound. I have read on forums that HTC are very fond of gimping the overall sound of the headphones to avoid hearing loss of its users, some of which would rather decide themselves whether or not to speed up the degradation of their eardrums.
  • Zune. The interface of Zune (as is the rest of the phone) is rather lovely. The trendwhore in me squees with joy when artwork of the artist in question magically appears in the background as I stare intently at the album of choice. I have to admit that the Zune interface is lovely, but it lacks some functions which I have been used to with the iPhone. There's no obvious way to scrub through tracks or podcasts - there's your play button and that's that. There doesn't seem to be an easy way to skip back 30 seconds either, unless I'm missing something. iPhone may be a bit guilty of over-function - I mean, I never understood why I wanted to listen to podcasts at half speed unless I was deeply, deeply into heavy drug use.


In short then - I think I made the right decision. It'll still need a bit of getting used to and adjusting, but the phone itself is much nicer to use than my old iPhone. I do have a small issue with the official Twitter app - when I skim through the timeline in the same fashion I did with the iPhone, the app will often jerk to the lists page. Not sure if this is just me, but it's a bit of an irritation. I guess there will always be teething troubles with phones; not one phone is the perfect phone and each has its pros and cons. I think it just feels nicer to not be part of the crowd, to have a phone which feels more like my own phone than someone else's. It addresses a lot more problems than the new problems I've inherited with the new phone and I'm sure there will hopefully be a few less problems with the new forthcoming Mango update.

From iPhone to Windows Phone 7 - The Trouble With Podcasts Pt2

If you live in the United States of America and you are reading this, then first of all - congratulations. You truly are in the land of the free. Also a lot of this blog warble will fly over your baseball capped heads as they fill with thoughts of "stupid moaning limey". Read my tale of podcast woe and you too will understand why this is the case.
Before I even started to add music on the Zune PC client, I immediately created new folders and assigned them to the four main categories of conent which my new phone could handle - podcasts being one of them. I've used computers for a while now and it was a no-brainer to grab mp3 files of podcasts and save them onto this podcasts folder; the theory (and common sense) being that Zune will read the podcast file mp3 and display it for me on that slickly hip interface. Seems easy in practice, right? I downloaded the latest Major Nelson podcast and sure enough - it was there on the Zune list ready to play. "Aha, excellent. This should be a cinch." I thought to myself. I grabbed some more of the podcasts I used to listen to on my old iPhone and assign them to the same save location.
No dice. No more new items appeared on my Zune podcast list. The kneejerk reaction of a quick jab of F5 - the king of refreshing buttons - did nothing. Restarting Zune did nothing. I stared back again - what's going on? Has the tech-savvy Larry "Major Nelson" Hyrb added some secret sauce to his podcast to make it appear on the Zune app? I contacted ZuneSupport on Twitter to try and find out what was happening - they sounded like they weren't too sure why it was happening either. I tried to think a bit outside the box and logged onto to see if I could direclty subscribe to these podcasts... it seemed easy enough - almost iTunes easy. Then the penny dropped. An unwelcome Javascript pop-up appeared above the page.
"This content is not associated with the country of your account. Please select the country which your account is part of" - or words to that effect. United States was selected on the drop-down menu. Like the well-educated, scone-eating Brit that I am, I selected United Kingdom and lo! It was at that point that I suddenly realised I was once more in the wrong country and I was only fooling myself: "This content is not available in your region". We say that the internet is this globe-spanning thing of wonder, but there will always be those boundaries not created by the oceans or borders, but by the lawyers of the world.
I did a bit more digging around. In short, if you're using Zune for the Windows Phone 7 in the UK and want to listen to podcasts using Zune as a client, then you're shit out of luck. I noticed that removed its "podcasts" option once I confirmed the location of my account. A bit more digging around, and it seems that this problem is also inherent in every other country other than North America. The iPhone suddenly becomes the more desirable option if you're a fan of podcasts. The iPhone was the device I migrated from with the assumption that I would be able to play podcasts just like any other smartphone device with a bit of smarts. Not the case.
I have investigated and there are apps other than the Zune app which allows for access of podcasts, though it amazes me that I had to snout around for them like a pig looking for the right kind of truffle. Money is requested, but that one-off payment is small when you consider how much frustration I will be sidestepping. It is a poor show though from Microsoft - they scratch their heads and wonder why not more people invest in the Windows Phone when they pull shit like this.
In other news, I tried to chase up how to access those 50 free music downloads I was promised for such a daring change of phone. Another incentive to buy into the Windows Phone 7 which falls flat when I tried to chase up those mythical downloads. Stephen on the O2 Live Chat was pretty fucking useless. "Have you installed Zune?". He pointed me to the O2 Customer Service phone number and I was soon talking to Anna - who was equally useless. She said I should visit the HTC site or perhaps e-mail a specific person about it. "What should I include in my e-mail? My account details?" to which I got the unsure reply of "Yeah, I think so". I eventually discovered through the Windows Phone site (not the O2 site) I needed a redemption code I hadn't received. Back onto the Live Chat and I was talking to Zak - who managed to sort it out for me. "Yep, we'll send you a code via e-mail". I have yet to receive the e-mail.
I also did a bit more fishing about the Marketplace - it's interesting to see just how unregulated the place looks at times. For instance, there are several BBC News apps - some appear to be more homebrew than official. Already there's a seed of confusion in my brain, although a good pointer is to go for the app tile illustration which doesn't look like it has been hammered up in a short amount of time on GIMP. I grabbed the "official" Weather app from Microsoft too - although the live tile functionality doesn't work and the tile background itself is a horrible shade of brown, which doesn't seem to match up to my shiny orange tile set. The HTC Hub's weather tile was the previous way I found out about the weather although those long-winded animations tend to grate after a while, even if they have been polished to an unobtainable shine.
I managed to get the free Xbox Live Flowers game to work after downloading it in rather than grabbing it online - it is a simple yet charmingly addictive puzzler where you have to match gems of a certain colour and set off chain reactions of other gems. I really, really like the way you can try purchases before you buy them - it's a nice alternative to the iPhone's method of having a full game and a "lite" game as two seperate installs. I used the try mode to check out the Hydro Thunder game - which looks good and plays well using the phone's gryoscopic control scheme. I also checked out Halo Waypoint and was impressed with the slick presentaiton and the ease of use - it was also the path to the first video I played on the phone - the Mega64 Halo Anniversary skit.
The wife has just reminded me that I can exchange the phone in the next two weeks. I'm going to grab the least-crap podcast app and give that a try. I think this podcast issue has been a major bone of contention for me. You iPhone users have it so easy compared to the mountainous hike non-American Zune owners have to navigate. The thing is that I really love the HTC WP7. It's a lovely piece of kit and has impressed me more than disappointed me. The easy option is to backtrack and get an iPhone 4, but that's such a cop out. I don't think I can stand the smug iAdvocates and their "told you so" tweets.
I'll keep you posted.


From iPhone to Windows Phone 7 - My Descent Into The Unknown Pt1

Last week I was taunted once more by another "If you haven't got an iPhone, then you haven't got..." television advert as I lounged on my couch holding the very thing they were mentioning with that horribly smug tone. I mutter under my breath. "I have got an iPhone, but I can't get that." The announcer continues with the shopping list of stuff that I can't access because two years ago I acquired a phone contract with the worst of the iPhones - the pauper iPhone. The iPhone 3G.
I was curious to see how the beautiful people lived. You know, the ones with the blemish-free faces and the catalogue-slim waistlines who nattered to their equally-ideal partners on their beds through the wonder of FaceTime, effortlessly flicking through their virtual photo albums of picture-perfect moments on the beach. At the time I had a Samsung U600 - I was fooled into getting one because Samsung featured greatly in the product placement of the Matrix movies. Somehow I thought I was Neo and I wanted a phone which flicked up in a slick way. Sadly although said phone had a cracking high-resolution camera for the time, it was rather shite at actually taking phonecalls. Games? Well, there was Tetris. Like a luddite I would trawl through mono-formatted WAP pages with crummy ol' GPRS. I remember there was a bundled shooter too, yet was tough to control due to the lack of a decent d-pad - the bane of many a mobile phone device.
After some persuasion from my girlfriend (now wife) at the time, I grabbed myself an iPhone. No 3GS units available, so I stumped up for a 3G. Surely it can't be that bad compared to the 3GS? They look the same, they're surely not that different? If only I had hindsight and a time machine. Oh, and a sledgehammer. None of this would have happened in the first place.
The wife has a 3GS and it's quite something to use that sucker compared to my 3G; faster accessing of apps, video... everything seemed to work like it should. In comparison, my 3G stuttered through the growing list of apps I was throwing on there. It would point blank refuse to access certain apps several times before it crawled back to the home screen. When it came to gaming, my iPhone 3G was obviously a world away from the humble Samsung and its lo-fi Tetris shapes. Alas, the cracks started to show soon after.
From a gaming perspective, it was pretty lousy when compared to the better versions of the iPhone my wife dangled from my reach - an update of the iOS confirmed this very fact by my exclusion from Game Center - the iPhone's answer to Xbox Live. More cracks - I couldn't install Infinity Blade, that super-shiny and sexy new game using Unreal tech which all the gaming websites were talking about. I recently grabbed the rather excellent Swords and Sworcery game, albeit one hampered by load times and a sluggish frame rate when navigating through the pixelated beauty of the moody game world. The finely-crafted soundtrack which accompanied the experience was hacked up with the repeated load times. Yep, I definitely got the worst iPhone.
I think the gaming experience accompanied by the hateful auto-correct and the fact the iOS update restricted me from even adding a fucking wallpaper to my home screen made me think of other avenues of my mobile experience - around this time Microsoft was rolling out sexy adverts of their new mobile OS and I was instantly taken by it. I think the fact it wasn't trying to be an iPhone was a plus - I hated the smug taint that comes with owning such a device. Those adverts don't help much. I don't have a perfect family to take photos of, I don't have AirPlay to magically transport those treasured ones and zeroes to a much larger screen. In short, I wanted me one of those Windows Phones.
The waiting for the chance to upgrade was painful - I restrained myself from tapping the tempting "upgrade now for £29!" button and waited until the 26th of this very month before I could upgrade online. I actually visited the virtua-store online at 12:01AM only to be told that I'd have to wait. "WHY U NO UPGRADE MY PHONE? IT'S 26TH!" I shouted. Bed beckoned and with it shiny dreams of a new mobile lifestyle. I love listening to the Sleigh Bells and those WP7 television adverts which more than hinted that "Hey, this isn't an iPhone" hooked me. The next evening after work, I grabbed myself a HTC HD7 with the fabled Windows Phone 7 OS and waited. True story - my iPhone was delivered by a midget. I thought nothing of it, just the whole process of "Yep, this must surely be a magical device". Sadly the WP7 was delivered by a balding, obviously married man who hates his job.
Rather than hunt down the pretentiously-presented USB "tool" to get my SIM out of the iPhone, I unfurled a paper clip and jammed it into the tiny hole at the top of the phone. Moments later, I had transferred it to the new phone and got it all set up. The wife looked on with interest - after all, she has had the iPhone 3GS for some time now and I think she craves a bit of a change too. She has toyed with the idea of an Android device purely on the fact that it has much more apps than the Windows Phone Marketplace. My argument was that I will be able to grab the main apps I used all the time on the iPhone anyway - Twitter, Facebook, etc. Using the HTC HD7 is a lovely, lovely experience. The thing is not only super-slick to behold, but the screen was larger than the iPhone's porthole. The phone booted up and presented me with options to login to my Windows Live ID.
First genius thing - the Windows Live ID. It hooks up to the Xbox Live part of the phone, the Hotmail part of the phone and anything else Microsoft-associated. I tweaked the tile set to be an optimistic orange and started to propogate the home screen with those apps I normally used on the iPhone; Facebook is pleasingly just as shit as the iPhone app - I'm not sure why Zuckerberg employs such terrible phone programmers, but it's disheartening. Second genius thing - and this is associated with Facebook - the People tab of the WP7 OS is ingenious in that it'll search through your Facebook friends and give you a big ol' list of contact information; the friends of mine who are foolish enough to include their mobile phone numbers are instantly accessible for inane chat. Mwhahaa!
The People tab also does the same for my Hotmail contacts, though I've had that Hotmail account for well over a decade, so I had a huge list of defunct e-mail addresses and, interestingly enough, "do_not_reply" addresses which I had to weed through in order to make my contacts list a bit more manageable. You can add to these contacts by adding more fields for information as well as pin specific contacts to the home screen. It's a shame (unless you can do this and I don't know yet how to) that you can't group contacts into Family members, workmates, etc.
Other revelations began to dawn on me besides the fact apps now behaved a lot better than on the 3G - imagine the joy of realising I could uninstall that Stocks and Shares app which no normal person actually uses. The iPhone wouldn't let me delete that app, nope. I could drag it all the way to the end of the app pages, but I'd still know it would be lurking somewhere. Zune Pass is a lovely thing to behold - the all-you-can-stream music service - and the Zune software - once you can decipher the navigation - is a lot more stable and less of an arse than crummy old iTunes - the grandad of the music scene, its crusty old bones riddled with 10-year-old code and a suspicious tendancy to work better on a Mac. Hey, everything works better on a Mac, right? I was very impressed with the syncing of the phone too - slick and super-quick. In comparison, iTunes plods along as it deletes practically everything on your phone before putting it back on there again.
My first forays into Xbox Live were interesting - I snagged the free Minesweeper game which is perfectly fine and does its job nicely. There's text ads to support the free-ness of the game, but I'm not that fussed. It's free. Free is good. The achievement notificaiton popped up at the top of the screen and it suddenly felt like I was in a familar setting. The selection of games wasn't stellar, but wasn't at all as bad as some ill-informed (possibly iPhone-owning) people would lead you to believe. The casual classics - Bejeweled Blitz, Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies and Fruit Ninja are all present and correct. After a recommendation, I checked out Fable Coin Toss and was wowed by the crisp and detailed visuals - I'd get that on the iPhone 3G but with a frame rate crunch to accompany it. The non-Xbox Live gaming tiles had a very tacky sense of MSPaint about them - non-shiny, non-polished icons aren't very appealing or give me any sense of confidence when I see them on my super-sexy new screen. The marketplace is obviously in its infancy, it'll be good to see it grow.
There are some niggles already - heck, I think every mobile device isn't 100% perfect. I had some trouble downloading titles from the Marketplace - the free Flowers game threw up an error about updating my phone through Zune, even though it was already updated. A quick internet solution later and it appears I had to buy the title through Zune on my PC first. The same PC-wanting weirdness also occurred when I tried to grab Puzzle Quest 2. My current gripe involves podcasts on the WP7 - it makes the process of obtaining and listening to them rather difficult. I assumed you could drop any mp3 podcasts into the Zune podcast folder and it would update them, although this only occurred with the Major Nelson podcast I grabbed, not the SModcast podcast. When I tried to "subscribe" (and I use the term loosely) to the SModcast podcast, I was greeted with an error message to say that the "feed was too big".
I've recently found out that the way to do it is to - gah - download a podcast app unimaginatively-called "PODCASTS!" and listen to podcasts that way; you can't stream podcasts through the Zune part of the phone. Oh, and the "PODCASTS!" app has a pro version - yep, you have to pay to store more than one podcast to play. It removes the ads too. I look at this oversight and realise why Zune failed - don't make a competitor to the iPhone which makes it a complete chore to listen to podcasts. It looks like I'll be buying the pro version if only to stave off the future ballache of syncing up mp3s to Zune.
After a few days though, I'm happy I have broken off from the Apple Motherbrain. I wasn't really totally part of it anyway considering the sub-par variant of the iPhone I was stuck with for two whole years. Maybe every smug television advert pushed me closer to the edge. Maybe it's a defiance thing associated with the whole "Mac vs PC" nonsense which was brought upon us by Macintosh themselves. There are things about the iPhone I will miss, but there's a lot of things I won't ever miss about it. iTunes is, and always will be, the greatest offender. The dirty old man of the Apple family in a well-worn armchair, pissing himself at intermittent intervals and gleefully knowing that sooner or later, those sexy iPhone cheerleaders will have to sit on his lap and talk to him.
The iPhone, I've figured out through some pretty pointless Twitter exchanges with iPhone-owning smug fuckers, is the Manchester United of smart phones. It's the smartphone which will always get the results and the smartphone which everyone seems to use because everyone else uses it. I fancied a change from the thing and the iPhiles shake their fingers at me and tut like I've committed the ultimate sin. Why would I want to leave the warm embrace of Helvetica and curved corners in favour of the One Microsoft Way? Simply put - I fancied a change. Also my interest in UI from both a recreational and professional aspect means I need to check out all kinds of interfaces and I thought it would be a great chance to see how the competition are handling interface design and interaction.
It almost makes me feel like I have to apologise for a somehow incorrect choice. 


Mad Tweets And Englishmen...

Twitter has been my home for a couple of years now - it's a handy tool for stalking game developers, that's most definitely for sure; I think we're all a little curious to see what swears @davidscottjaffe comes out with on a regular basis, or perhaps see what new crazy photographic gems @therealcliffyb has posted. Heck, one of my greatest achievements recently is being followed by The Hoff himself. Nono, maybe this is my greatest achievement. Hmm. I have embraced the Twittersphere and enjoy what it brings to me every day. Alas, Twitter is also the first place where I learn of the deaths of beloved celebrities. I may feel immune within my digital bubble of information, but out there - that place some of us oggle from behind double-glazed windows - real shit is happening.

On Thursday 23rd June 2011, Peter Falk sadly passed away. This seemingly-immortal actor played one of the greatest TV detectives in the history of television - Lieutenant Columbo. The show enjoyed a huge run and is testament to the character that Falk portrayed - there wasn't a scene where Columbo had to put on a pair of water skis and jump over a dangerous fish with a full cartilaginous skeleton and a highly streamlined body (thank you, Wikipedia.) I have seen the countless re-runs they air on television - even the one where you would think the guy committed the perfect crime - murdering someone in a swimming pool with a huge block of ice? Genius. Columbo solved it though. He solves every crime. He takes no shit.

Alongside the sad news of Mr. Falk's passing, another item also appeared within that neverending textual waterfall of information. It was an IGN piece regarding the development processes behind LA Noire - Why Did LA Noire Take Seven Years To Make? After I panned and scanned through the article noting the more prominent yet sadly unsurprising aspects of game development mis-management, two things occurred to me.

  • Brendan McNamara sounds like the worst person to be positioned in the development of videogames.
  • LA Noire would be a much better game if you played Lieutenant Columbo.

I mused over the second point more than the first. Some choice tweets were written regarding the matter, then I thought about it some more. LA Noire would be a much better game if you played Lieutenant Columbo. For a start - realistic raincoat cloth simulation. Columbo doesn't move that quickly, but trust me - the gaming world will appreciate this small detail. You can cruise around the streets of 70's LA in his trademark Peugoet 403 Convertible, possibly with his dog (named, yep, Dog) as a handy companion in finding clues. Interrogations? The many, many shows of Columbo had these in spades - not just that, the opportunity to use "Just one more thing..." as a dialogue option is too tantalising to ignore. It could be up there with the Ace Attorney "Objection!" exclamation - satisfying in both execution and resulting reaction.

Columbo also never carried a gun. This is probably the most interesting aspect of having a Columbo-inspired LA Noire game. Guns are kind of clichéd these days when it comes to videogaming; games are generally shunned by the populace for not being able to stick a pistol to a dude's visage and blow it into many fractured, normal-mapped polygons. A gun-less Columbo would mean the player would - fuck! - have to use his brain a bit more to figure out those crimes. No longer the option is allowed to solve puzzles the easy way. Those puzzles, the crime scenes of Columbo Noire could well be based on the many numerous cases Columbo has solved over the years - and yes - we would be able to play that level with the huge block of ice and the swimming pool. Get those guest stars on board too! Nothing excites me more than trying to force a hyper-realistic videogame avatar of William Shatner confess to murdering his blackmailing ex-lover. (Thank you, IMDb.)

Team Bondi had their chance and they blew it - Peter Falk's now solving crimes beyond the pearly gates. They could have enticed him into their studio, motion captured the crap out of him and recorded many, many lines of dialogue including several iterations of "One more thing...". The great man's gone now... it makes me kind of sad that there's no way Peter Falk could ever be captured with LA Noire's patented facial performance capture technology; a lookalike just wouldn't cut it.

Then again, Brendan McNamara probably isn't a Columbo fan.


Lego, You Were So Good To Me.

I have a confession to make which is a practice you, dear reader, might indulge in also. I still sometimes buy the occasional Lego set. Me and Lego go back a long way. There's a spirit of childhood which never seems to leave those expertly-replicated blocks; the invitingly playful clinks as Lego pieces tap each other in those clear polythene bags... poring over those diagrams in those instruction manuls, hunting down plastic convicts and reaping the inner peace of finding that last piece and realising it was not actually lost... the final brick locking into place before admiring what you - yes, you - created. Put it up on that shelf. Watch it gather dust, unloved and never to be played with. Part of the scenery - but part of the scenery only made possible by you and you alone.

I went through the Stages of Lego from Duplo right up to the pneumatic wonderment of Technic. Mindstorms sadly passed me by as I grew more fond of videogaming, but nothing beats the whole process of purchase, unboxing, creation and display. I did have a spate of Lego Star Wars purchasing during my early game development years - I was so obsessed, I would purchase sets as they would come available up until Lego took the piss with their £200 X Wing "Collector's Edition". I was obsessed, but not that obsessed.

So when Traveller's Tales announced they would be bringing Lego and Star Wars together in a videogaming sandwich, how could it fail? I love Lego! I love Star Wars! I love videogaming! So with the gay abandon of a bearded super-fan of many, many pop cultures, I skipped to the store and made an instant purchase. This was my first mistake - and it's a mistake I keep making again, and again. And again.

I can't help it. It's that clink of Lego pieces. There was nothing more satisfying than hearing that unmistakable noise as my chosen Lego minifig moved his arms about creating fully-plausible Lego creations which more often than not solve videogame-type puzzles. What are these things? Studs? I can... buy Lego-related things with these? Sign me up! I can break Lego things to get more studs, you say? This is getting better and better! The pinnacle of all this was unlocking a bonus level where I could destroy and interact with an old skool Lego town as Darth Vader. I was in geek nirvana.

These Lego-branded games have gone through so many collaborations, but one trait stays the same throughout - that they've been designed by an absolute maniac and programmed with no compassion or respect for their players.

Take the stud system, for instance. You collect studs to buy things as I've mentioned - but you can also buy game-mocking "extras". Multiplier extras, I'm looking straight at you. Sure, I can switch on the x2 extra and get twice as many studs when I play through levels... but I can buy and swtich on the x4, x6, x8 and x10 extras at the same time and suddenly I can collect not twice as many studs, but 3840 times as many studs. Lunacy or just a simple mistake? I don't even want to begin to examine the developer minds of those within those hallowed walls of TT.

Once that knowledge is learned, it can never be unlearned. Suddenly future Lego games become open to this wanton stud abuse. I can't help it. The clink of Lego pieces, they spur me on. I am a child once more, smashing Lego representations of trees and watching hypnotised as my stud count increases out of control.

There are other extras too. Ones which help you to find hidden things which are squirreled throughout each intricately-realised level. I only resort to these cunning extras when I'm stuck - which happens sometimes, such is the way these games are designed. Lego Harry Potter featured a full Lego recreation of Hogwarts. I love Harry Potter! I love Lego! I love Hogwarts! In theory, this is an amazing idea - a hub which is basically a whole level to explore. I managed to get most of the hidden things, but only near the end of the game did I resort to using those sneakiest of extras.

One hidden thing was apparantly hidden in a bookcase in Hogwart's library - a flashing arrow pinpointed its exact position. Right, hokay. No resorting to Gamefaqs. I can do this. I hunted around the library looking for ways to uncover this most hidden of hidden things. No dice. How the fuck do I uncover it? Grr. Stumped and frustrated, I went searching about on the internet for this hidden thing. How do I uncover it? How?

"It's a glitch. There is no hidden thing there." commented a kindly soul on Yahoo! Answers. Sure enough, I found more evidence that I had wasted my time. Someone else commented "It wouldn't be a Lego game without some glitches, right?". Right. No one gives a shit about the games they release these days, do they? Is it my imagination, or are more games coming out with more glitches? Fuck it, we can fix it with a patch later.

A more recent case in point - Lego Pirates of the Caribbean. My lovely wife recently bought me this as a birthday present. She knows I love Lego. I love Pirates of the Caribbean. She totally surprised me with this purchase and knowing it was a co-operative game, we would enjoy the sensation of the clink of Lego together. Deep down in my mind though, I was thinking it wouldn't be a smooth ride. It never is with a Lego game; I wasn't to be disappointed.

The second level of the game and me and the missus are already stuck. We just recruited the pirate who loves pigs. He loves them! He sleeps with them and everything. Nono, not that type of sleep. Well, may- I digress. We're stuck and don't know how to advance - we know that the pirate we just added to our character roster has a fucking huge hammer. I also eventually worked out that said fucking huge hammer could be used to bang the crap out of red-hot metal pieces to fashion them into cooled-down Lego solutions to Lego problems. I hovered over some red-hot metal pieces next to a gate and proceeded to hammer (pardon the pun) the X button. Pig-loving dude swung said fucking huge hammer around with no actual interaction with those glowing pieces. Fuck.

It was only when I realised that I had to hold the B button over said glowing pieces to achieve the goal of level progression that I realised something incredibly stupid. The usual "B" button prompt icon which appears over the head of characters didn't appear in the case - and doesn't always appear. A Twitter follower mentioned that there was an option to turn on these button prompts "all the time" instead of the default "sometimes". At that point, I wanted to drive to the house of the Travelling Taler responsible and punch him square in the balls. We spent a good 20 minutes wondering what the heck to do; I can only begin to imagine how candy-addicted children would react to such pisstakery.

The last straw? Trying to solve the puzzle of reuniting a parrot to its pirate owner - in the very same level, the very same playthrough. We spent another portion of our precious lives working out what the hell to do. There was a parrot flying around, we tried to interact with it. Nothing. Not a bean of interaction. I had my suspicions, and sure enough the internet came up with the goods again; "It's a glitch. The parrot is attacking an invisible pirate. You have to start the level again".

This is the ultimate betrayal of trust. I want my Lego games to reward me with bricks and shiny things, not frustrate me with poor level design and glitch-ridden levels. I don't want to associate that most lovely of noises - the clink of Lego pieces. TT have a licence to print money with these Lego franchises, but they also appear to have a licence to be slightly complacent. Someone isn't pulling their weight. Someone who loves Mega Bloks more, I suspect.

These games will continue to get made and I will foolishly continue to buy them. I get older, but the clink of Lego represented in reality of digital format - that always seems to bypass the common sense part of my brain. Frustratingly, Traveller's Tales know this all too well. The bastards.


Leaks? Don't Encourage Them.

Not so long ago there were rumblings throughout those virtua-digi-presses of the gaming world. Taking the same amount of space as totally legitimate news, the words "GTA5 Leaked?" materialised in various flavours of Verdana, Arial and even Times New Roman. The all-important question mark at the end of that title. It's like a get-out clause of responsibility. You don't want an exclamation mark, nono. Don't stoke the fires of promise and excitement, chaps. Please, no. Don't.

Too late. Someone jabbed "Publish" and it's up there for everyone to see. What? A Rockstar employee filmed it on his 0.1 megapixel camera phone and passed it on to someone to pass onto the internets? Nono, he can control a recording device properly most of the time - it's just that he had too much (hot) coffee during a particularly difficult period of crunch. Yep, that's it. Screenshots too? Ohmy! Surely this is newsworthy? It isn't, of course. In terms of diverting traffic onto websites though, it's the magical elixir of hit counters. People love to see obviously faked-out videos and screenshots of forthcoming games, don't they? Don't they?

I wish I could get those 40 seconds back. I could have finished this blog 40 seconds earlier, but it probably would have more likely been a blog about the PSNocalypse silently raging worldwide. Nope, those 40 seconds were spent watching that aforementioend "leaked footage" of the game "in action". I was part of the traffic, part of the rubber-necking ghouls who even though they knew it was totally fake, they still watched. What angers me is the sheer laziness of not only the creators of these "leaks", but the news sites willing to fill their quota with this well-trod nonsense.

Things don't really leak much from the well-oiled, grizzled development machine which is Rockstar Games - they've been around long enough to know how to keep their shit locked tight. There is a rampaging fanbase out there though. In the old days, leaks were actually leaks. You saw it and knew that no one really had proper access to any shady versions of professional art packages - and if they did, they sure as hell wouldn't be using them for fabricating their own bullshots. Now everyone knows how to use Photoshop. Even my cat can come up with a knowingly meta LOLcat of his own photo, which he skillfully took with a self-timer. Clever moggy.

Don't get me started on all those "leaked" console designs too. I'm sure as I type this, Xbox 360 fanatics with a terrifying knowledge of 3DS Max are crafting their own versions of what the *shudder* Xbox 720 (Please don't call it that, Microsoft) will look like in their heads. They'll pop them online, submit these screenshots as "news" and wait for the fevered increase in speculation and page views. Videogame news sites should know better. You really think that Rockstar would let anything escape that portal of creativity? You think that maybe it's insulting to those hard-working developers that they would get so lax with their NDAs? My imagination contained all the speculation I need for GTA5, now tarnished by a fanboy's pixelated wet dream. A LOLcat in motion - Impact typeface and all; "THE LOCATION WILL BE... ...HONOLULU". A gurning ginger moggy could have been a truly fitting finale.

This is a passionate plea from my heart to those videogame news sties. Don't give these people the oxygen of publicity - publish more amateur hour sketches of Wii 2 and expect more to come your way. Be smart and judgemental. If you see lame-ass leaked fakery that you could easily beat, it's probably best off not posting it as news. Although here's the rub - if the "leak" merits exposure for being totally, totally insane and obviously the brainchild of a MIyamato-in-the-making - by all means, draw our attention to it. Like so -



Jack Speaks. The Industry Collectively Rolls Its Eyes.

It takes the CEO of a multi-national corporation to remind us all that the world of videogaming hasn't really grown up much, if at all. I'm curious to know if those electrical impluses which sparked up the catalyst of an idea to kick the beehive of "those other dudes" came from his own chemical reaction or one inspired by someone on a higher plane. Kaz? Did Kaz send him a text message so worn and used, he's got it saved as a template?


I imagine Hirai-san sends his texts in caps like that. I also imagine that deep down in the recesses of Jack Tretton's brain, he would love to send a press release in ALL CAPS because he realises it would piss off even more people. Yep, that Jack Tretton. The same bloke who has repeatedly dissed the competition through carefully-worded brainfarts which magically transform into fully-formed, viable news stories. I would point you in the direction of these news stories of the past, but a quick Google search reveals that Jack's latest brainfart has had the desired effect; there will be no research of the past tonight.

It has happened in the past though. Multiple times. I know my 35 year old brain has been through a lot of shit, but I do remember the anger which a younger me experienced. Younger me was a lot more fanatical about allegiances to faceless corporations and inanimate objects. I used to be a die-hard Dreamcast fan. When you're fanatical about something, it's very easy to get upset when someone comes along and disses the thing you love the most. There's not a care for the radical art stylings of Jet Set Radio, the balls-out bravery of releasing Rez or the batshit-crazy Samba de Amigo with a maraca peripheral. Maracas! Actual maracas! Maracas of the future! There was the online which was waaay ahead of its time, one of the most expensive adventures involving a young man looking for sailors in a hyper-real area of Japan. How could I not be a fan of that? How could anyone?

Playstation 2 came along, Dreamcast floundered. I was embittered, so embittered. I learnt though.

The more wise of us know that console wars are a load of bullshit. They are just as futile as the news stories which breed out of them like nasty, cancerous, creeping turds. Analysts report that PS3 will overtake 360 in sales soon? Really? Who gives a hoot except the fanboys adding that to their cerebral scrapbook of fact-ammo? Not me, sir. Give me consoles which are successful. Any console, I don't give a hoot. As long as it keeps me in biscuits and booze I'm happy.

I really want to like Jack Tretton. He seems like a nice guy. He has a confident Sensodyne smile and a suit starched up to the balls with confidence. I'm sure if I shook his hand, I'd be hypnotised by his highly-polished hyperbole. Truth be known - Jack Tretton is the ultimate in fanboys. Not only that, he's a corporate fanboy too. A fanboy who means business if business means throwing mud at the competition. It doesn't get me mad in the way it did when I was myself a fanboy, more that it gets me mad as a fully-paid-up member of the games industry.

C'mon, Jack. What's with this?

 "Our view of the Game Boy experience is that it's a great babysitting tool, something young kids do on airplanes, but no self-respecting twenty-something is going to be sitting on an airplane with one of those. He's too old for that."

I'm a self-respecting thirty-something and I have had some great experiences on the DS. That's a classic throwdown that any self-respecting fanboy throws out there - Nintendo is for kids. Far from it. Say what you like about the Wii, it's expanded the gaming audience like you wouldn't believe. Jack failed to mention that massive percentage of females who game on the DS too. Surely Jack knows that this is only good for the very industry he's a part of? Those "self-respecting twenty-somethings" probably have more than just their Nintendos to play with. Heck, they probably own something Sony-branded too.

Nintendo were creating gaming experiences with playing cards waaaaay before Masaru Ibuka - co-founder of Sony - was even born. I Wikipiedia'd him too. He looked like a decent bloke. He wouldn't diss the competition, Jack. Have some professionalism for once in your life, sir. Maybe some measured judgement? Maybe realise that the world's pretty fucked up right now and some solidarity wouldn't go amiss?

I don't think he cares though. Stuff like this only turns people against each other even more than usual. The more mature members of the gaming community (of which there are quite a few and thanks to the passage of time, continuing to grow) all sigh a collective "Oh, Jack. Not again." as we double-facepalm ourselves once more and watch with horror as the younger members of the gaming community take Old Man Jack's kneejerk press release as a pointless call to arms. Comment sections of the world implode with pedantic fact shouters and die-hard dick-comparing deviants. A part of me fears that the Sony Research Machine is already going through those comment sections with a virtual comb, gleening some kind of viable information out of this familiar debacle.

Where's Jack now? All that hate and nauseous poison has to escape sooner or later. Straight after the lobster dinner with the PR folks, he's on his knees and throwing up his guts in the usual restaurant cubicle. Jack crumples into a sullen heap as he hears the muffled cries of joy and celebration from the nearby table of faceless suits behind the facing cubicle wall. One last trickle of glistening mucus leaves his lips. The words "Never again" drowsily uttered from them.

He knows that'll never be the case.

The Lost Art Of Ignoring Hardware Launches

It's Saturday afternoon and me and the good lady wife are shuffling with a shopping trolley through aisles of overpriced British foodstuffs. I pick up a bunch of Braeburn apples and slide them into the poorly-designed polythene bag, tie them up and drop them with a little caution into the corner of the shopping trolley. This is what we do every weekend - we go shopping for essential foodstuffs. Food, as you know, keeps the human race living and breathing. Can the same be said for electronic consumer products? I suppose it depends on how committed you are to the cause of new console launches.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a large cardboard display. It appears to be doing a good job attracting my attention, but I knew that as soon as I stepped foot into the store, That mock iPhone sheen, that glistening promise of a future solved with a simple yet shiny hinge allowing that shiny lid open and allow my eyeballs to be caressed by a world of 3D... without glasses! Did I just read that right? Pesky 3D. I am myopic not by choice. When I went to see Tron Legacy in 3D, I saw it with not one pair of glasses but two. Saying that, technically I will still enjoy 3DS's third dimension with these very glasses which allow me to type onto this monitor screen. Pesky 3D. Pesky glasses. Pesky Nintendo 3DS.
The wife has seen Nintendogs + Cats. Nothing attracts the female demographic of videogames more than cuteness and the sight of a hyper-realistic dog chasing after virtual frisbees even gets me thinking that yes. Maybe we do need a 3DS after all. Surely it's the answer to all our problems. All that economic meltdown can be easily forgotten with a truly immersive experience of herding a bunch of cute cats around a paddock. In 3D. Why the fuck isn't this thing in my trolley? Let's put these apples back, dear. We don't need them for nourishment when our eyes can be nourished.
The fact I wasn't one of the determined gamers queued up at midnight and eager to get their hands on this technology was damning evidence. I didn't deserve the 3DS. I used to be dedicated to my humble yet pleasurable pasttime, devoted and thankful to the worlds I got lost in and the characters I grew to love. I'm also older and wiser. That economic meltdown? That's a factor. There's more though. Early adoption. The early adopters of the world think for not a second as they slip out their credit cards with such skill and finesse from countless, repeated motion. People love shiny things, what other explanation can there be for such a rabid and hungry appetite? I grab the Black 3DS display box and stare at it, looking deep into that enticing sheen. It's immaculate. I can almost see my face in it.
I used to be an early adopter. I still bare the scars of owning a first-generation DS when Nintendo revealed the DS Lite. That first-generation DS looked like it had been put together by a hobbyist in the back of his garage. It was clumsy, ugly, impractical in sunlight... yet I loved it. Nintendo took a page out of Apple's aspirational rulebook and played me for a fool. What was even more foolish? I ended up buying the DS Lite as well. No wonder Nintendo dine on gold plates and drive around in flying cars powered by caviar juice.
The internet ruins everything. I look at write-ups of the 3DS hardware and I want to pat myself on the back, I really do; the 3DS has a terrible battery life, does it? 3-5 hours, you say? That's not even an average plane journey, is it? The 3D effect can give you a blinding headache? Really? Hmm. The more I think of not owning a 3DS, the better it makes me feel. I kid myself, of course. I read through one average 3DS game review after another. Yep, I know launch games are renowned for not being that good. I read on. What's that? The DS store and a variety of other things aren't available to use yet? How did Nintendo manage to get away with that? Loading times, you say? Loading times? On a cartridge? How is that even possible?
Yet there's that twinge of doubt in the back of my head. I know what it is, of course. I'm a married man who doesn't game as much as he used to. I'm not as enthusiastic in videogaming as I used to be. I've become jaded to all of the enticement, the sheen, the promise. I thoughtfully place the Black 3DS display box back onto the shelf.
There's food to buy.


And On The Seventh Day, He Forgot About The D-Pad

 Let's face it. There was a time where there was the daddy of all controllers. All those misty-eyed years past, we remembered when Sony swaggered into the console market with an undeniable confidence. They brought us fresh, new experiences of futuristic roller-coasters, roundhouse kicks and sideways-screeching cars garnished with as many manga speedlines as you care to imagine. All this required a controller which didn't suck. Looking back on the history of the humble controller, I bear the scars and muscular pain from wrestling with the Atari 2600 controller. The NES controller is classic for sure, but ergonomical it most definitely not. A need was there and Sony delivered - lo! Here is a controller for the ages. A controller to tell your children and grandchildren.
The Dual Analog Controller.
The daddy of the DualShock and DualShock2, this was the humble piece of plastic that allowed me to navigate those chevron-adorned meanders so precisely. The confident glow of the Analog LED almost made me feel I was part of the world I was pretending to inhabit. Good controllers melt into the fingers. You hardly notice them unless they vibrate at the appropriate times. Aha! That'll be where the aforementioned DualShocks come in.
I don't remember many vibration-inspired experiences in my time playing videogames, but that bit in Metal Gear Solid with Psycho Mantis asking you to put your controller down and making it move through the power of telekinesis? It wass hard not to utter a George Takei "Ohmy". Finally, a controller I could quite happily play with until my  arthritic bones are dust. I would never, ever leave this controller. Nope. Never.
Cut to October 2005. I am driving a bright red Ferrari around the most photorealistic representation of Tokyo I've ever laid my eyes on. There's a gathering throng around me waiting to play Project Gotham Racing 3. No dice, losers. I'm in this experience and i fucking love it. This controller is sweet too. Soon after, money changed hands and I staggered back home with a box of Xbox 360 and continuing the racing from the comfort of my own sofa. The 360 controller is everything to me. It's my new favourite thing. I could kiss the designer of this thing. Surely he has wrestled with those very same controllers of the past and experienced the DualShock2 enough to give us all the human interface device of the future. Show me his face, I will put up framed photos of him in my house.
Cut to June 2007. I'm smashing those framed photos off my walls and shouting at the controller which once brought me so much, but like so many things - fallen at the last hurdle. Pac-Man Championship Edition's menu music is happily gurgling away as I stare with grim intent at the one thing which had got me in such a state. The one thing I didn't have to use when screeching around photo-realistic street corners being entertained by the click of Kudos.
Hello, 360 d-pad. You plastic whore, you.
They got so many things right with the 360 pad. The triggers are perfect, the analog sticks have just the right amount of give to them. Those bumpers which appeared to not be as forgiving as the DualShock shoulder buttons soon became the new way to tap through weapons and menu screens. That d-pad though. It mocks me with its flagrant blending of two geometric shapes. Circle into cross does not go. Nope. Try it on puzzle games like Bejeweled 2 and you'll soon see how control suddenly becomes an abstract, a total disconnect. I didn't want to move there, d-pad. I wanted to move there instead. What's that? I failed again on Finity Mode and it had nothing to do with my ability? Grr.
This is even more painfully obvious in the utterly flawless Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. I've not been so addicted and angered by a game in recent times; the addiction is that tried-and-tested gameplay mixed with a twist of pure ingenuity and a slowly-growing conga line of ghosts. The pain is not being in complete control of that iconic yellow disc. It's frustrating beyond belief when you miss yet another turn - Pac-Man DX is all about precision and knowing when to turn at the right moment. On the earlier levels, it's great. When the speed is ramped up to maximum, it's totally chaotic.
I collapse into a heap surrounded by my smashed up house staring at that one piece of useless plastic which cost me an impressively high score. One of the best pieces of menu music in the history of menu music still doesn't distract me from my stupor. A startling realisation sets in that maybe I bought Pac-Man DX for... the wrong console? Surely not. As if on cue, a DualShock3 saunters out from behind a curtain and giggles to itself. I think this part was all a hallucination-fuelled state from my ordeal, but I'm not sure. I stare at it and I swear an expression forms onto its hard casing. A smirk. A grin. It knew it had the right stuff from the very beginning - one of the best d-pads in controller history.


Bizarre Creations - "Not Like This"

I don't know if any of you have worked in a videogame development studio, but it's a bit like The Matrix. There's a dreamlike sense of wonder, a feeling of being encapsulated in a protective bubble along with your eager co-workers. You mostly love playing videogames in varied capacities, have heated discussions about them and know that your love of videogames motivates you to accomplish great things in your heart. One day you'll spot a black cat meowing. You'll think nothing of it until the same cat repeats that same meow, and then you realise that something isn't right. Before you know it, a bald-headed idiot who loves virtua-steak more than cereal slop will grab the cable from the back of your head and yank you out of one reality and into a much more horrible one.
This could be the impending fate of Bizarre Creations, and it breaks my gaming heart.
Activision are all about business, all about pleasing their shareholders and all about profit. They have no cares for heritage and gaming history; it's all business to them. They don't have a secondary thought of shuttering studios which the very livelihoods of developers and their families rely on. They are the Skeletor of the gaming world, a title once held by EA. The thing is that there is emotion and then there is a cold, hard fact; the emotion is that Bizarre have been around since many of you were still in daipers/nappies and produced some truly brilliant games involving fast cars and recreated cityscapes. The cold, hard fact is that since PGR4, Bizarre haven't been as successful as they should have been and far less gamers are buying Bizarre-developed titles. This is even more tragic when you consider that games released after PGR4 had a larger multi-format audience.
The acquisition of Bizarre Creations would have made more sense if Blur had been released straight after PGR4. Bizarre are great at racing games. Truly great - they took what was usual about the genre and added to it. What followed was The Club - a third person over-the-shoulder shooter which relied heavily on combos and high scores. Where were the fast and shiny cars? The satisfying click of Kudos accumulation? I think the Bizarre fan base gathered from the Project Gotham Racing franchise were both confused and disappointed there wasn't another Project Gotham Racing game. When Blur eventually materialised, it could have been too little, too late - a title which returned to the roots of the PGR franchise with a vengeance. James Bond 007 : Blood Stone was the last nail in Bizarre's coffin - a world away from what the public were used to. It could be argued that Bizarre had lost its identity through Activision's acquisition, their focus re-directed by ill-advised suited goons a world away.
I found Blur to be a truly addictive and very playable game - once you drop down that devilish default difficulty - and it has the spirit of Project Gotham Racing running all the way through it. That's the real tragedy here - more Project Gotham Racing fans didn't give the game the chance it deserved because the Mario Kart comparisons could have put them off. When you play the game on the default difficulty, you will begin to hate it. Opponents will constantly haze you into submission and challenges seem to be won sometimes through sheer luck of not being at the receiving end of two shunts at once. The dope who reviewed Blur for IGN did mention that difficulty, not realised it could be dropped to a more manageable and playable level. I'm so, so glad I did that. I may have felt less of a man for doing so, but fuck it. The game was 100% more enjoyable, 100% less frustrating, 100% more addictive.
I mentioned that Blur has a lot of Project Gotham Racing heritage in its digital bones which the brightly-coloured neon power-ups distract from; Kudos has been replaced by "fans", fan runs are very reminiscent of cone gates (the game's Sticker section even hints at these roots) and there is that selection of real-world locations, although these locations appear to have their own personality which adds to the game's unique look and feel. The power-ups are only the icing on the cake - there's a lot of strategy which only becomes apparent through continued play and experience from Blur's excellent Multiplayer. We're all suckers for achievements too, and Blur expertly handles these through their aforementioned Sticker section - the game will constantly throw up pop-ups of your micro-achievements which add towards those actual achievements and trophies. Multiplayer goes even more crazy with micro-achievements, which adds to the game's addictive qualities - ranking up unlocks more of these as well as more modes. On top of all this, the handling of vehicles is sublime and there's also a strategy in choosing the right vehicle for certain events.
There is a lot of depth and replayability to the game which some reviewers may have missed. It is truly a revelation and one I sadly came too late to the party for. The game is out there for a bargain price now, and I urge you to pick it up and give it a chance. Bizarre Creations still exist, though time is running out. Their fate appears to be inevitable and not at all pleasant in any way, shape or form. I really hope the essence of Bizarre lives on in some form - they have a unique feel and personality in their games which is a rare thing these days. They've been in my gaming life since Metropolis Street Racer on the Dreamcast, and it'll be a horrible waste to see them ruthlessly yanked from their idyllic developy existence.

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