Top Ten: Gaming as an Art

By Mike on 4:50 pm

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The vast majority of games out there ride on realism. Namely the most realistic looking graphics. Sure, there's a lot of those out there and some of these games are frankly garbage. Then there are games that take your optical experience to a whole new level. For this edition of Top Games, we'll look at the top ten games that belong in an art museum. These are in no particular order and are all games I've played.

Okami (2006, PS2/Wii?)
If we're going to talk about gaming as an art, I have to mention Okami, where the game IS art. Probably one of the strangest games I've played, Okami is very similar to games in the Zelda series. It's almost like a cross between Twilight Princess and the Wind Waker. Like Wind Waker, Okami uses a technique known as cell shading, which allows for 2D characters to be rendered in a 3D environment. That environment being traditional Japanese watercolour paintings. The "Celestial Brush" allows you to actually draw things on the screen to change the environment, as if you were the actual painter. The game also brilliantly blends in Japanese mythology. Okami is one of the most stunning, artistic, and innovative games that I've seen on any platform. There are rumors of a Wii version coming out soon that will take advantage of the Wiimote for controlling the Celestial Brush. The PS2 version is very difficult to find in traditional stores but is readily available online.

Grim Fandango (1998, PC)
Another bizarre (in a good way) game that borrows artistic elements from another culture. In this case, Mexico and the artwork surrounding the Day of the Dead. Grim Fandango is very similar to Okami in terms of how it's story was laid out, playing on Aztec and Mayan mythology while incorporating elements from modern Mexico. All "human" characters in the game resemble "calacas", which are paper mache skeleton dolls made for the holiday. Non-human "demons" also exist in the game. One of the other stunning aspects is the recreation of a 1930s art deco environment. You'll see the smooth art deco lines of the Empire State Building and similar represented in a beautiful 1930s environment, with some Aztec influence mixed into the style.
Grim Fandango is a LucasArts adventure game. In fact, it was one of the last. It's also the only one that uses analogue control rather than point and click. It can still be found and works with XP.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003, Xbox/PC/Mac)
KotOR 1 has sometimes been criticized for having substandard graphics for the time of its release. For the character and weapons models, yes, I would agree with this, but not for the environments. The team at BioWare must have tried really hard to make the person feel as though they were actually in the Star Wars universe. It's obvious when you see how some of the worlds look. Kotor really takes advantage of lighting effects. The sun setting on Dantooine is probably one of the most impressive environments in game, but every world has its own unique beauty. From the clean lines of Mannan to the tropics of Lehon. Everything has been carefully designed and detailed making it the nicest looking Star Wars game yet. The Widescreen Gaming Forum has a patch that allows it to be played at HD resolutions. Definitely a must for the PC version.

Flight Simulator X (2006, PC)
Flight Simulator has always been known for being cutting edge. It falls in as an art form for doing something few games have ever done. That is making the entire world your playground. All seven continents, all countries, tens of thousands of airports all carefully mapped. The soaring mountains of the Himalayas to the teal waters of the Caribbean and Hawaii. Cities like New York, London, Paris, and Las Vegas spring to life. You can literally fly around the world. Flight simulator sets the benchmark for realism in gaming. FSX adds a whole host of new feature such as cars driving on the highway, more realistic water and trees, and realistic aircraft. The only problem? FSX requires a beefy system. Don't expect a smooth experience without high end graphics and at least a mid range gaming CPU.

Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (2000, N64)
The Zelda series is unique in the sense that each new adventure outdoes the previous one. Majora's Mask was no exception. It was the sequel to the fantastic Ocarina of Time, which I would classify as at least one of the top ten games ever made. Though OoT was great, it was visually bland at times, at least in comparison to the sequel. MM takes advantage of (and requires) the 4mb expansion pack, which doubled the N64's system memory, which allowed for more stuff to be displayed on the screen at the same time. Majora's is a much more colourful adventure who's visuals were so expertly crafted and detailed that everything feels right. Even small things like your items and weapons are so much more colourful and detailed. Majora's is easily the best looking game for the N64.

Sam & Max Series (1994, 2006-2007, PC/Mac)
I lumped the entire Sam & Max series from Hit the Road right to Ice Station Santa. Our two buddies started their gaming life in 1994 as a LucasArts adventure game based on the characters created by cartoonist Steve Percel. LucasArts dropped the sequel for Hit the Road in 2003. Many people who worked on it left and joined Telltale Games. So far, seven more Sam & Max games have been produced in an episodic format. So why include this as an art game? Well, Sam & Max did something that few other games like it did. It took comic characters and transplanted it into a game without it sucking balls. All eight games masterfully recreate the wackiness of the comics right down to the smallest details. The series also gets big points for reviving the adventure game genre but that's for a different top ten.

Comix Zone (1994?, Sega Genesis/SNES?/PS2/PSP)
While Sam & Max expertly transplanted comic characters into a game, Comix Zone transforms the game into a comic. The game came out in the Genesis's hey day of the mid 90s. The best games for consoles always tend to appear late in their life. Essentially, your character Sketch Turner is sucked into his own comic creation and charged with fighting his own super villain. Along the way, Sketch eventually becomes his own super hero. The game is a punch-em-up game that puts the action right in the comic panels. The game feels like you're actually in a comic book. Comix Zone is included in the Sega Genesis Collection for the PS2 and PSP.

Ecco the Dolphin (1993, Sega Genesis/Sega CD/PS2/PSP)
Ecco the Dolphin is perhaps the most difficult game I've ever played. I've never made it beyond the first couple of levels, and I know I'm not alone. Few people have actually seen the end of the game without cheats. This was at a time where battery backed saves were still uncommon. In the game, you, Ecco, must save your pod from an evil entity. The game recreates an undersea environment which is hauntingly beautiful, especially for the time. Coupled with the haunting score, this game is definitely a museum piece. It was released with it's equally impressive sequel Tides of Time on the Sega Genesis Collection for PS2 and PSP. Fortunately, the collection supports saved states so you can store your progress without having to use complex passwords.

Company of Heroes (2006, PC)
PC gaming has always been on the cutting edge and WWII based games have always been along for the ride ever since Wolfenstine 3D so many years ago. CoH reinvented the real time strategy genre complete with the most realistic looking graphics we had ever seen. The game makes you feel in the war. Once again, it gets the expert detailing award. That's rare in the top down view world of RTS games where units usually appear very simplistic. The environment scores big points for being historically accurate.

Orbiter (2006, PC)
I was racking my brain for the last one on the list and this one came to mind. One of the interesting things about it is it's a free game, created and developed by a British physicist to simulate realistic space flight. To the causal observer, the graphics are vastly outdated for a 2006 "game". Actually, whether it's really a game at all is debatable, though it does have missions to play. Graphics are roughly equal to what Flight Simulator 2000 was. So why would I include it. Well, it expands on what Flight Simulator did by making the whole solar system your playground. The planets are all realistically textured using high resolutions. Ground texturing is simple but you'll spend most of your time in space anyway. Considering that this was all put together by one man and a handful of dedicated modders on a non-profit basis, I'd say that's pretty impressive. Few home made games will ever get to this point. The game can be downloaded from

TiVo Coming to Canada and DVR Info

By Mike on 4:19 pm

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Surely you've heard of TiVo. It's a digital video recorder that's been available in the United States since 1999. The company that sells the device plans to have it for sale in Canada in the next couple of days at a price of $199 for the box, plus a monthly subscription fee of $12.95 per month, though prepaid plans are available. Basically, the device allows you to select programs, records them like a VCR, and then allows you to play, pause, rewind, or fast forward TV. Americans claim this has revolutionized their TV viewing experience since they never miss their show, can fast forward through commercials, and all their stuff is in high quality.

So what is a DVR anyway? Well, think of a DVR as a VCR on steroids. Rather than using magnetic tape and FM analogue recording, DVRs store video digitally on a hard drive built inside the unit. The devices themselves have never gained a lot of popularity in Canada. Most Canadians that own one get theirs through their TV service provider. However, such units are very expensive. A basic DVR (also known as a PVR) from Bell ExpressVu costs $299 for the standard definition model and a whopping $599 for the HD model. It can store up to 200 hours of SD video so we can assume it has a 250-500gb hard drive built into it. Most people aren't going to be willing to pay that so VHS and DVD Recorders have remained the dominant means of recording TV.

Problems with VHS and DVD Recorders:
VHS has numerous problems. Namely it can't record in full 480i, it uses roughly 320 lines of vertical resolution versus 480 used in SD broadcasts. Noise introduced with analogue cable systems is more noticeable though programs recorded from digital sources over S-Video will be close to commercial VHS movie quality. Sound quality of VHS is also quite low, about equal to FM radio. VHS tapes gets stretched as it's played causing it to warp, further degrading playback. Lastly, one has to fast forward or rewind through the tape to find the shows they want, which is inconvenient.
What about DVD-Rs. Many commercial DVD recorders are available which essentially resemble your typical set top DVD player. but include a burning drive. The player allows you to record programs onto a DVD disc at either 480p, 480i, or a reduced resolution for longer playback. Recording time is two hours on standard play, which is comparable with VHS. While DVD offers higher resolution playback, it can't record HD programing in HD. Also, it's always more convenient to have everything in once place. Some DVD Recorders do have a DVR integrated in them.

What should I look for in a DVR:
A PCI video capture card and at least 40gb of hard space is a cheap way to get a DVR. If your computer was bought/built after 2005, chances are it has a DVD writer too. Most modern HDTVs have VGA, DVI, and HDMI ports so you can connect your computer to them. 40gb can store 17 hours of DVD quality video. If money is no object, new 1tb drives can store 425 hours of SD video. Such a big drive will cost at least $260. However, cheaper 500gb drive can still store up to 212hr of video and only cost around $100 for the cheapest units. This will store more than most stand alone DVRs.
As for stand alone units, in Canada, we're pretty much limited to what cable and satellite providers charge. The new TiVo is one option but it's monthly use fee spoils it's usefulness. The largest stand alone unit can store 250gb and this isn't the one available in Canada. We'll most likely get stuck with the 80gb model which TiVo claims can store 80hrs of video, though likely not at DVD quality. The Canadian model will also not be able to record HD broadcasts, unlike some of the US models. The HD model will likely come out eventually.
As for other models, a quick search of Best Buy only turned up two DVR/DVD Recorder combo units from Pioneer. This is a good brand and the units upscale SD content to fit HDTVs, the price on them is very high. $450 for the 120gb model. All other units are sold directly through cable and satellite providers and are usually combined with the decoder box. As mentioned before, these are also very expensive.

If you want a DVR, going the PC route is still the best way to go. You can have as much or as little space as your wallet will allow by going this route. You can also stream your recorded programs to media servers like the Playstation 3 and convert your favourite shows easily for watching on your mobile device. This is the best way to go for Canadians who want digital video recording.

Asus Eee PC: Road Warrior or Road Kill?

By Mike on 3:51 pm

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There's been a lot of talk about low cost laptops lately. The OLPC foundation started the whole thing when they endeavored to make a $100 laptop for use by children in developing countries. Of course, other companies began to wonder if it made sense to produce ultra-cheap laptops for the consumer market. In comes Asus with the Eee PC.

Asus came out with the Eee PC in the last month or so, and it starts at $299 US. All models come with a 7 inch screen with 800x480 resolution, an Intel GMA900 graphics processor, and an Intel Celeron-M ULV-353 running at 630mhz. For connectivity, all models come with 10/100mbit ethernet, 802.11g wifi, Realtek audio processor, memory card reader, three USB 2.0 ports, two PCIe based expansion ports, and the usual headphone, VGA, and microphone connectors. The system weighs in at 2.03 pounds, measures 225 × 165 × 21~35 mm, and comes in Pure White, Lush Green, Sky Blue, Blush Pink, or Galaxy Black. The operating system is Xandros Linux running the KDE desktop, but Windows XP can be installed as well.
The base model, the 2G Surf, comes with a 2gb solid state (flash based) hard drive and 256mb DDR2-400 memory. The 4g Surf comes with a 4gb SSD drive and 512mb memory, costing $350 US. The Eee PC 4G comes with 4gb SSD and 512mb of DDR2-667 while the 8G comes with an 8gb SSD drive and 1gb DDR2-667. The top models cost $400 and $500 respectively.
The two higher end models feature upgradeable memory while the lower end ones do not. The two low end models come with a four cell 4400mAh Li-ion battery while the higher end ones have four cell, 5200mAh Li-ion batteries. Asus claims battery life is 2h 45min and 3h 30min for each pack respectively.

Processor and Graphics:
Lets rip this thing to shreds. First of all, I find the Eee PC to be grossly over priced for what it is, but I'll get back to that later. The screen itself is only 7 inches at a resolution of 800x480, which is not much more than DVD video resolution of 720x480. This is the WVGA resolution which is antiquated these days. The typical XGA resolution (1024x768) that's been used in PCs for the last 10 years has 1.5x the resolution. Even the older SVGA at 800x600 would still be pretty cheap. Furthermore, a lot of modern programs require at least a resolution of 800x600 to run. All models feature an Intel GMA900 integrated graphics chip. This is fairly basic. It has an output resolution of 1600x1280 over the VGA port so it can be plugged into a monitor and displayed at a more reasonable resolution for desktop use.
Next is the processor. It's been under-clocked from 900mhz down to 630mhz. The processor is quite slow for today and might not be able to run a large number of modern applications available for XP (should the user install it). Older programs and games should work though.

The base model EeePC only has 2gb of flash memory acting as it's hard drive. This is far too little memory considering that both XP and Xandros eat up at least 1gb, leaving very little for the user to install software on. Cheap mechanical drives would have added more to the weight and power consumption but would add a lot more storage space. A 20gb 1.8'' mechanical drive is not much more than a 4gb SSD drive. You can get up to 8gb which is still too small for today. Even 40gb can be limiting these days. It's also worth noting that the exact life span of SSDs is not exactly known, but we do know they wear out faster than mechanical drives.
Another flaw is the fact that the Eee PC doesn't include any sort of CD/DVD drive. Fortunately it does read flash cards but to install any software, you'll need to buy an external DVD/CD drive. This adds to the end user's cost when it would be easier to include one.

Battery Life:
Considering Asus has included many energy saving features such as down-clocking the processor and using solid state drives, battery life for the Eee PC is surprisingly short. 2h and 45min maximum life is not a lot. When my laptop was new, it was getting six hours on a 4400mAh battery. Even two years of heavy use only has it down to 5hr. That's on a computer that's far superior to the Eee PC in ever aspect except size and weight.

Operating System:
Like any PC, the Eee PC allows you to run either Linux (preinstalled) or Windows. The Eee PC comes with Xandros. Based on what I've seen, it appears very Windows like. However, like all Linux distributions, it's an OS intended for power users. Those who are not very computer literate will be quickly overwhelmed by the terminal interface. They'll want to install Windows XP instead. XP is sold separately. The Eee PC does not meet the hardware requirements for any version of Windows Vista and therefore can't run it.

At only two pounds, the Eee PC is about as portable as you can get without resorting to a smart phone (like the Blackberry or iPhone) or pocket PC. However, lack of an optical drive and limited hard drive space make force you to carry around external units to compensate. This is a huge limit to portability if you have to resort to that.

The Eee PC ranges from $299 to $500 US. In the case of going from the 4G to the 8G, you're spending $100 for 512mb more memory and an additional 4gb HDD space. Solid state drives are a poor choice if someone is looking to make a cheap system. Dollar per gigabyte, mechanical drives, even 1.8'' ones used in the iPod and similar devices, are far cheaper.
I have a 2005 iBook G4 that includes a 1.33ghz PowerPC G4 processor, 1gb or DDR, a 40gb HDD, 12'' 1024x768 screen, CDRW/DVD combo, 6hr max battery life, and OS X Leopard. These systems regularly sell on eBay used for around $500. This means you can get a far more powerful laptop used for the same price as the top end Eee PC. The EeePC is grossly overpriced for the antiquated hardware it uses.

Things aren't looking good for the Eee PC. It's antiquated and overpriced. Who's this for. Well, people who like to do a lot of work on the go will like the Eee PC since it's smaller than a sheet of paper and very light weight. It should be plenty for drafting up letters, surfing the internet, instant messaging, and the like. I can see university and college students liking it. The Eee PC is an interesting experiment in ultra portable systems and it is an improvement over PDAs and smart phones. However, if you're willing to trade a little portability, you can still find very portable used laptops for around the same price. In fact, you can even get a new one. Dell right now has some laptops on sale for $499 that are AMD Sempron 3600 based. Though not as portable, they're the same price and offer you a whole lot more.

Unless you need must have the absolutely smallest system available, the Eee PC is simply too overpriced and archaic. Asus however does plan to address some of the limitation. One example is increasing the screen resolution to 1024x600, which should make it compatible with all Windows applications that meet the other system requirements. Another new development is the Everex Cloudbook which is another ultra low cost Linux based option which includes a VIA CPU and 30gb of HDD space.

How To: Turning Your Console into a Desktop PC

By Mike on 4:37 pm

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A lot of people might be surprised to know that today's consoles are essentially made up of desktop PC parts crammed into the little box. Well, it's not that simple but you can use your game console as a desktop PC.
Surely you've heard of Linux. It the third major desktop operating system core behind Windows and Mac OS. Linux is Unix based and is therefore very similar to Mac OS X, though not as streamlined. There are four consoles today that are capable of running Linux. These are the Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, and Playstation 3. The PS2 and the PS3 are best suited for running Linux. In order to run the OS, the console must have a built in hard drive to store it on, and not all PS2 models do. The 360 has a limited Linux project known as Free60, but Microsoft seems to be trying to discourage Linux on the 360 (for obvious reasons). Software updates for the original Xbox have also made installing Linux on it more difficult.
One thing worth noting is that Linux isn't one operating system but is rather a group of operating systems all based on a single core (aka the kernel). You will need to find a Linux distribution.

For this article, we'll be looking at installing Linux on the Playstation 3. The PS3 is the easiest system to install the OS on. Sony actually encourages the use of Linux on it's console and allows you to switch between it and the XMB through the system settings menu. First, you'll need a distro. For the purpose of this article, we'll be using Xubuntu. Xubuntu is an offshoot of the well known Ubuntu OS. Most Linux distros are open source and therefore free to download. Xubuntu is a light weight variant of Ubuntu that is used for low memory systems. Since the PS3 only has 256mb of system memory, Xubuntu is ideal. You can also use Ubuntu or Kubuntu if you want but they consume more memory. Kubuntu uses the KDE desktop which is more Windows like. Ubuntu uses GNOME while Xubuntu uses the Xfce desktop, which is similar to GNOME. First you'll need to download the distribution of your choice for the processor your using. The PS3 uses the Cell processor so we'll need a distribution programmed for it. You want Xubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) for PS3. Go to this page.
Then click "Playstation 3 Desktop CD". Download it to your PC's desktop and burn it to a CD. The download is roughly 500mb.
You also need a keyboard and mouse to install and use Linux on any of the consoles mentioned. Since most have USB ports, any USB mouse and keyboard should work. Wireless, non-Bluetooth versions are best to use.

For installation, PSUbuntu provides an excellent list of instructions on how to setup the Playstation 3. Linux is pretty easy to setup but involves some extra steps that Windows doesn't. Follow their instructions for installation and setup carefully.

When using an HDTV or computer monitor, you'll need to adjust the video mode. Learn how to do it here.
If you get stuck, consult their forums.

Now, lets go over what you can and can't do with Linux on your PS3. Keeping in mind that the PS3 really isn't meant to be a home computer, it does have some limitations. First of all, there are no drivers available for the RSX graphics processor so 3D games and Compiz desktop effects are out of the question. The PS3 is also limited to 256mb system memory so memory hogging programs are out of the question. Numerous other glitches limit audio output to stereo sound through the RCA connector only, allows only WEP encrypted Wifi, and sporadic access to the BD drive. Some AV codecs are also missing due to patent issues but can be downloaded separately. DVD-Video for example cannot be played. Look into PSUbuntu for how to enable it.
What can you do then? Well, you can surf the internet, write and read emails, use office suites, and playback more exotic audio and video files such as OGG Vorbis and Xvid. AV files stored on a memory card can be read and played no problem. Open Source codecs such as OGG Vorbis are included with the OS though I recommend you download and install the open source VLC Player through the "install/uninstall" menu under system settings. The web experience is also a little better than the PS3's XMB browser. You get the popular and fully functional Firefox browser included with your distro. The only problem is that Adobe doesn't have a flash version of PowerPC/Cell editions of Linux so flash based sites won't work well. While the PS3 won't replace a proper desktop or laptop PC/Mac, it will provide you some basic functions that make it well suited for an HTPC setup in a bedroom or living room where a typical computer is not practical.

Now that I've covered Linux on the PS3, what about Xbox? Well, as I said, Microsoft doesn't exactly make it easy. Sony has always bragged that the PS2 and PS3 can run Linux and has based a lot of marketing on that fact. Microsoft is not so helpful. Microsoft doesn't like Linux for obvious reasons, despite claims to the otherwise. They want you to buy brand new PC with a shiny copy of Windows Vista along with your Xbox 360. Running home brew software on the Xbox is difficult and complicated. To use Linux, you need to be pretty computer literate as it is. Installing it on the 360 is not a strait forward process like it is on the PS3. You can visit the Free60 Wiki to find out more. They're the ones leading the Linux on Xbox 360 project. However, I would recommend you not even think to attempt this unless your a computer power user who's already experienced with Linux and home brew.

The original Xbox also needs some extra steps and has some limitations. You're limited to only 10gb of HDD space which is shared with the game OS where as the PS2 allows you to use a dedicated drive and the PS3 allows you to allocate up to 70gb (on the 80gb model) for the "Other OS". Damn Small Linux is a good distro choice. XDSL is an Xbox specific version of this desto, which weighs in at only 50mb. Like the Xbox 360, this one requires some modding of the system hardware. You need to flash the BIOS with a home brew one. If you don't know what I'm talking about, then don't try to install Linux on this system. Here's the instructions.

The PS2 can also run Linux as mentioned. Sony released a Linux kit for it which included the OS, keyboard and mouse, VGA connector, network adapter, and a 40gb HDD. The kit is no longer officially sold in the USA but some copies are likely still floating around. Linux will work on all PS2 models with a HDD bay, which excludes the new slim models.

Lastly, what about Wii? Can Wii run Linux? The answer is no, for now. A project known as is working on it but Linux is not working on the system yet.

Is PC Gaming Becoming a Rich Man's Sport?

By Mike on 7:03 pm

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Crysis was released the other day to much fan fair, receiving high ratings on review sites. However, this game exposes one of the major problems with PC gaming today. That being that you need a high end computer to properly enjoy the game. Gamespot noted that Crysis would bring even the most powerful PCs to its knees. From a marketing perspective, this does not seem to make much sense. This severely limits the number of people who can play the game. People who are unwilling or unable to pay $2000+ for a high end, SLI/Crossfire PC with high end graphics cards and processors. Now, I understand that PC gaming has always been on the cutting edge, but perhaps game developers are pushing us to close to that edge, shutting out the vast majority of a massive market.

When asked if Crysis would come to console, Crytek noted that neither the Xbox 360 or PS3 were capable of running the game. Both consoles have much faster CPUs than what you would find in a typical PC and contain GPUs (Radeon X1800 and Geforce 7900 based respectively) that were considered to be high end only a year ago. nVidia still considers the 7900 to be a high end GPU on their website. Game developers need to lay off a bit and start focusing on making their games enjoyable on a typical gaming PC. This was true at one time, it's time they got back to it. PC gaming should not be just a rich man's sport.

The Best Star Wars Games: Part 3

By Mike on 12:14 pm

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Rounding out some more of the best Star Wars games in part 3.

Episode 1: Racer (1999, N64/PC)
On the outside, Episode 1 Racer appears to be a very simple game with rather weak production values. The title screens and menu are very simplistic. Racer as the name suggests is a racing game. You fly the pod racers seen in The Phantom Menace. The game allows you to play as several different racers with their respective pods which have their own strengths and weaknesses. Of course, little Anakin is there too in his trademark blue and white racer. Other pods and characters can be unlocked as you win races, such as Sebulba's. Other characters from the movie appear as well such as the Boonta Eve racers, the announcers, Watto, Qui Gon and Jar Jar. Fortunately, Jar Jar does not have a speaking role in the game. Like most racing games, you race, you win money, then you can use the money to upgrade or repair your pod. Parts can be bought from Watto's shop, or from his junk yard.
Things take a turn from other racing games when you actually get into the race. The tracks are stunning and the racing is faster than any other game you've played. You frequently race at 400-600km/h and there's little margin for error. Because the pods "float", they have a floaty feel to them which is vastly different than hard surface racing games. The tracks themselves pose more of a threat than your fellow racers more often than not. The game doesn't stick to Tatooine but travels to various other worlds. Except for Tatooine and Malestare, all other tracks are located on original words never before seen or mentioned in Star Wars. Track environments range from urban, under water, jungle, ice, and sky. Due to the fact that the racers float, the game includes some of the most impressive jumps in racing. The game's controls are simple so it's an easy game to get into. While appearing rather simple, Episode 1 Racer ended up being one of the best racing games for the N64. Unfortunately, no sequels were made. Racing elements have been incorporated into some other Star Wars games as mini-games but never to the same degree.
Update: Seems I was wrong. There was a sequel. It was called Star Wars: Racer Revenge and was only released on PS2. It was not developed in house as Episode 1 Racer was, but rather by Rainbow Studios. Obviously not well known, or perhaps its just because I don't follow game magazines and websites enough. Gamespot gave the game a fairly good review but noted it was far too short a game and had little replay value. Might be worth renting if you haven't tried it yet.

Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire (1995, PC/Mac/Playstation 1)
Rebel Assault II is yet another sequel that out shined the original. In the game, you reprise the character Rookie One from the first game. Rebel Assault 2 however uses all-original material and is considered to be canon by LucasFilm, while the original is ambiguously canon. The game is well known for its use for full-motion-video, or FMV. In 1995, CDs were becoming the dominant medium for software storage due to their high transfer rates and data density in comparison to floppy discs. However, most games were still under 50-100mb where as an entire CD could hold 700mb of data. Developers used the rest of the storage space for high quality sound tracks and FMV. Rather than animated cutscenes, Rebel Assault 2 used live actors and the original costumes and props from the movies. This added strong production values to the game, driving a strong story line.
As for the game itself, it's best described as an arcade style rail shooter. Your character or ship moves along an imaginary rail while you shoot at targets. You have some control of your direction but this is limited compared to first person shooters and flight sims like Jedi Outcast and TIE Fighter. The courses themselves are pre-rendered which accounts for the excellent graphical appearance for a 1995 game. Objects in the game however are rendered as you go by the game's engine. The basic story was to discover and dismantle an Imperial project that would see cloaking devices on their fighters. The game takes you through several missions including shootouts and space combat. It's just another classic that every gamer should have in their library. I doubt it would work with XP or Vista though. If you have a Playstation (any model/generation), why not pick up the Playstation 1 version if you can still find it. There were no more sequels in the Rebel Assault series, which is unfortunate.

PS3 2.0 Coming November 8th

By Mike on 1:26 pm

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Sony has finally announced official details on firmware update 2.0 for the Playstation 3. So far, they've announced the ability to turn on the console using a PSP, custom photo and music playlists, XMB themes, Playstation news ticker (RSS?), and Trend Micro Web Security. PSU is reporting it will be out Thursday (November 8th).

This is far from what estimates placed the update as being, however, past firmware updates for any Sony console have never included as much as 2.0 was rumored to include. I expect more of the rumored features will be added in the 2.xx line. It's also possible that all features for update 2.0 have not been announced yet. Stay tuned.

Check out the Playstation Blog for more info.

How To: HTPC Basics Part 1

By Mike on 12:52 pm

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Home Theater PCs are very popular right now among tech enthusiasts. Their one major advantage is to squeeze all your major home theater components into one unit that you can quickly pair up with a speaker system and TV. In this series, we'll look at the basics HTPCs.

There are a variety of different types you can choose from. You can buy one from a store pre-built, get one custom made at your local computer shop, or you can build your own. All HTPCs have several things in common. They must be small, they must offer complete systems, and most importantly, they must be silent. That last part is the most difficult.

There are a variety of purpose built all-in-one home theater units out there. The most well known are the Apple TV, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3. The PS3 is by far the best due to it's robust hard drive space and built in Bluray player. However, the problem with many of these purpose built all-in-one media devices is they tend to be limited in scope. The one major issue is the limited number of codecs they can playback. Codec stands for "coder/decoder". It's also known as a media file type. These players are usually quite limited in that they only play the most common types, which are not always the best ones. If they can encode, they can only encode audio at preset bitrates. They don't allow for flexibility. These units also cannot burn CDs and DVDs and some, such as the Apple TV, don't feature an optical disc drive at all. You still need a desktop computer to do all the work and then transfer the files to your device. This is hardly convenient.

The good news is, you're not limited to these devices, thanks to Small Form Factor PCs (SFFPC). The Apple MacMini is an example of a SFFPC. Your advantage here is that you have a fully functional, pre-built computer with a small footprint. The MacMini is about the size of two CD wallets stacked on top of each other and includes Apple's Mac OS X Leopard operating system, complete with iLife and Front Row. This allows you to use it as you would the Apple TV but with full computer functionality. Aside from that, the MacMini will also do all the tasks that you'd typically use a computer for such as web surfing, emailing, photo editing, etc. The downside with the MacMini is that it only has a DVI output so it won't work with TVs that have analogue AV connectors. You need an HDTV with a DVI-D or HDMI input. Also, the MacMini can only output audio in stereo unless you purchase a 5.1 USB sound card for it.
If you're into Windows PCs, there's a much wider variety of parts to work with. Though larger (but getting smaller), you can use built in 5.1 sound cards and a much wider variety of video connectors. They can also be easily customized to meet your specific needs and budget. These systems are widely available from major retailers and feature Windows XP Media Center Edition or Windows Vista Home Premium.

When buying a Windows based HTPC, there are several things to look for. You want at least 1gb of memory for XP and 2gb for Vista. For processor choice, I recommend Intel's Core 2 line. Intels have been long known to be the best multimedia processors. For hard drive, you want at least 60gb but more is better. The choice of video and sound card greatly depends on what you'll ultimately be using the system for in the end. However, the graphics card should have 128mb memory for HD playback. If you intend to have a media server to connect this device to another over a network, say to stream video from a desktop PC, you'll want to make sure it has a Gigabit (1000mbps) LAN connector. All media servers should be hardwired to a network rather than using Wifi. If you have to use Wifi, use the new Wireless N standard, which is twice as fast as the current 54mbps Wireless G standard.

In Part 2, we'll different HTPC components.

At the Movies: Hollywood's Overuse of CGI

By Mike on 10:42 am

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You hear a lot of celebrity talk but you never really hear about the movies themselves being discussed. It's an industry that seems to fly in the face of logic. Hollywood has been in a box office slump in recent years. The thing is, they can't figure out why. They usually attribute lack of sales to piracy and illegal downloading, but the real reason is simply the content.

Spider-Man 3, the biggest blockbuster of the summer, so Sony claimed. It has been universally panned by critics. I believe utter disgrace has been used to describe it on numerous occasions. Well, there are several issues that turn potential blockbusters into train wrecks. Spider-Man 3 is a good movie to dissect but you might as well be talking about any major release these days.

Lets talk about the overemphasis on special effects and CGI. While it's possible to create amazingly real special effects using CGI, it has become way over used. Take the Star Wars prequels for example. While the original trilogy has a magic about it, the prequels ended up being no more than a two hours long cartoon with real people superimposed over it. Take the case of Revenge of the Sith. One scene, where Obi-Wan's clone commander take off his helmet, it's Temuera Morrison's head on a CGI body. The scene just ends up looking really weird and unnatural where it probably would have been easier and more realistic looking to just to put Morrison in costume. Star Wars is good for comparison purposes since we can look at how the original trilogy was done in the late 70s and early 80s compared to the prequels of the late 90s and 2000s. Same movies, same director, same writers, but completely different feel. The majority of Star Wars fans do not like the new movies, at least not as much as the original. This has been attributed to nostalgia but I think it has a lot to do with production values. Star Wars Episode IV as a low budget film is way better than Episode I is as a high budget film.

Moving to more recent movies, Spider Man 3 and Transformers were supposed to be this summer's big movies, but they flopped. Once again, we see an overuse of CGI. Critics typically say that while SM3 looks pretty, it lacks plot. The same criticism was leveled at Transformers for being 2hrs or giant robots smashing into buildings, but it only had a very weak, cliched plot. The problem with CGI is that it's become a poor substitute for good story telling. Certain films like Lord of the Rings can pull it off with a lot of CGI use because they have strong stories to back it up. The sad truth is that Hollywood has completely run out of ideas. Writers have no imagination what so ever so they turn to CGI as nothing more than filler. If people just want to see computer generated graphics, they'll just pick up a video game, as they did with Halo 3 which smashed the movie box office.