Category Archives: Xbox

I have an AXE to grind!!!! Rock On!!

Guitar Hero II was one of those games I really wasn’t sure about.  It did sound like fun for a while, but I had never seen it in action or played it myself.  Well, as luck would have it, a good mate of mine bought a copy but had to go away on business for a few days, so he loaned to me while he was away!  After hacking my way through my second song, and actually nailing my first good run, I was hooked!  This game is awesome!  I have since bought my own copy, and guitar (axe).

The Guitar controller feels very cool.  The buttons work nicely, it’s comfortable to use, and is a load of fun.  Lifting the neck high to activate Star mode is cool too.  After an extended session, my left hand does feel like it’s been slammed in a door, but that’s just my lack of co-ords more than any fault of the controller.  After a 10 minute rest, I’m ready to go again!  How well somebody who isn’t into music and had never tried to play guitar in real life would enjoy GH2 is debatable, but as for me, well, I’m majorly into Guitar Hero II!

I just wish my sister didn’t kick my butt at it so much!  Must go practise before she comes over again!!!!!

Happy Birthday to my Xbox 360 (well, almost)

I say almost in the title, since today is indeed my first anniversary of the joining of me and my 360, but alas, just a few short days shy of the great event, she decided to give up the ghost, kick the bucket, throw in the towel, buy the farm, whatever your favourite metaphor is for DYING.  She’s dead.  3 red lights.  The word “gutted” doesn’t describe how I felt the day she passed away.  But, I’m an impatient man, and didn’t waste a moment in running down to my local mall to buy a replacement.  Its not a waste of money really, since I was planning on getting another one anyway to use as a Media Center Extender, but only later on.  In an even crueller twist of bad luck, she died only a week after I had sold the premium bundle I won in the PGR3 competition for well less than they cost retail.  Anyway, what can you do.  No use crying over spilt milk or dead Xbox’s.

The story isn’t all bad though.  When Xbox 360 was launched in SA, the distributer made a deal with Microsoft to support imported consoles that were purchased before local launch.  No idea why they did that, but it was jolly decent of them.  Mine has been arranged to be replaced under this deal, which is fantastic, and not the kind of putting the customer first experience we usually get here in Africa.  I commend MI Digital / JNC on this move, and thank Waggy ZA for his part in helping me out.

Some stats about my first year of Xbox 360 and Live from MyGamerCard.net and 360Voice.com:

Number of Games: 62

Total Score: 17269 / 36165

Total Achievements: 519 / 1278

Rep:  5 Stars
GamerScore: 17269
Zone: Recreation

Completed XBLA: 0 / 9
Completed Retail: 6 / 30
GS Completion %: 47.75%
GS % (Non-Demo): 54.71%

Country Rank: 16/868
World Rank: 12240/982215

Most Played: Project Gotham Racing 3

Longest streak: 28 days
Play percentage: 84.5%
Largest achievement gain:10/21/2006 (13)
Largest gamerscore gain:1/16/2007 (550)

HD-DVD Review

I managed to get hold of an Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive via Ebay for the very acceptable price of R1080 including shipping.  It arrived last Saturday and I’ve been meaning to get my review done since then, and am only getting to it now.  Anyway, better late than never, so here goes.

The drive unit itself is about the size of a medium sized hardcover book, and follows the Xbox 360’s “exhale” design.  Sitting on top the console, it is the same length as the 360, and looks good.  Included in the box is a power supply (which is disappointing, but the USB interface obviously couldn’t handle the power requirements), a Xbox 360 Media Remote, some manuals etc, a USB 2.0 cable, a disk you must insert in the console BEFORE connecting the drive, and a copy of the King Kong HD-DVD.

Inserting this disk in the console seems to install some software to enable HDDVD playback.  Not sure why they couldn’t do this over Live with a dashboard update, as it seems pretty small, only taking a second or two to complete its process.  One possible reason is that they couldn’t assume all consoles using this peripheral would be connected to Live.  There was an update available over Live, which I got prompted for the first time I used it though.

The drive connects to the rear of the console (or the front, but it looks better in the back), which uses up your USB port back there.  If you happen to have the Xbox 360 Wireless adapter currently running off that port, fret not, as the HD-DVD drive includes 2 USB ports on the rear of the unit, and the necessary clips for attaching your wireless adapter, so you lose nothing.  In fact, you gain a USB port, so you can still connect your Live Vision Camera (review to follow soon) to the rear of the unit, and keep cables out of the way.

My 360 is connected to my Dell 2405FPW 24″ LCD screen via the Microsoft Xbox 360 VGA cable.  This screen has a native resolution of 1920 x 1200, and I have it set not to scale, therefore I have small blck bars at the top and bottom of the screen in order to keep the proper 16:9 aspect ratio.  My console is outputting 1920×1080. 

I eagerly inserted the King Kong HD-DVD disk.  As a quick aside, let me say that I really like the smaller cases HD-DVDs come in.  They do make any DVD racks you may have obsolete, but they are much nice and way smaller.  Anyway, back to King Kong………

I sit here struggling to think of how exactly to portray in mere words how good this movie looks in HDDVD at 1080p.  The jungle scenes are absolutely incredible.  King Kong himself is too good for words.  Every hair on his body seems to be moving individually, and the detail you can see on his face is down right scary.  I sat through the entire three and a bit hours in absolute awe, like I was watching my first ever moving picture.  I was literally, blown away.  The best analogy I can come up with is this:  DVD is like watching moving photograph taken with your average camera phone, and HD-DVD (in 1080p) is like watching a moving photograph taken with a good quality 5 megapixel digital camera.  It is mind-blowing!  The only downside to this kind of spectacular clarity is that there were some scenes you could clearly see had been green-screened.  The focus just looked ever so slightly wrong, something I very much doubt anybody would have seen in the movie theatre or on standard DVD.

After being stunned by King Kong, I quickly threw in Superman Returns.  Superman Returns is a hybrid disk, with one side HD-DVD, and the other side standard DVD, which can be played in any DVD player.  As mentioned in my HD-DVD vs Bluray article, this is one of the major benefits of the HD-DVD format, enabling people to purchase movies like this, and be able to use it as a standard DVD until they upgrade to HD-DVD.  One of the main differences between DVD and HD-DVD is that the movie starts straight away, without going to a menu.  The menu is available with a press of the Menu button, but comes up as an overlay while the movie continues to play.  From this menu, you can pause the movie, so you don’t miss any while you’re fiddling around, change the sound settings, see extras etc.  You can also activate the IME (In-Movie Experience).  This is basically the next generation of director’s commentary.  It brings up little picture in picture windows while the movie is playing to show special extras such as how they did the scene you’re currently watching, actor or director interviews etc.  It’s pretty cool, and not nearly as boring as director commentary!

I looked at Superman Returns playing for a minute or two, then ejected the disk to make sure it wasn’t playing the standard DVD side by mistake.  It wasn’t.  I put the disk back in the drive, and skipped to the scene of the airplane / space shuttle accident, where Superman saves people for the first time in the movie.  The picture was good, but not great.  People’s skin looked plastic and a little fake, there was a lot of noise (speckles) on the picture, especially in darker scenes.  Don’t get me wrong, it still looks MUCH better than DVD, but if I hadn’t just finished watching King Kong, I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed with this whole HD-DVD thing.  I removed Superman, and put in Batman Begins.  Now this looked MUCH better.  There is no noise in the scenes, you can see the pores on peoples faces, making them look a lot less like plastic mannequins, and the sharpness in the scenes of Gotham City is excellent.  This not so super Superman made me do some thinking.  The director of Superman obviously wanted a softer look to all the scenes, and it probably does look great in the movie theatre, but on HD-DVD, it’s disappointing not to be able to see every pore on the actors skin.  Maybe it’s just me, and I am looking at the picture rather than watching the movie, but again I say, after King Kong, it looks rubbish.  As for the noise on the picture, I assume that came in during transfer from film to digital.  Not all transfers are equal, but Superman Returns looks quite bad.  Or, maybe King Kong was just particularly good, which is why it is included with the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive as a showcase?  I don’t know, but I’ve seen what’s possible, so I now expect it everywhere!

I can’t comment on the sound of the movies.  HD-DVD includes Dolby Tru-HD sound, which is essentially a lossless compression algorithm.  This should allow much more detail in the sound track, especially in the bass, highs and little detail sounds you often hear happening behind you.  Unfortunately, only very high-end home theatre decoders support this right now, and only via HDMI, so the Xbox 360, since it doesn’t have HDMI for now, has to down mix the soundtrack to standard Dolby Digital 5.1.  It’s ok, but just ok.  I also had to crank up the volume of my speakers, as the sound output of HD-DVD is quite soft for some reason. 

In conclusion, I would like a new pair of eyes, as I think they’ll soon be the weakest link in my home theatre.  Once decent sized 1080p screens start to cost less than small countries, and Tru-HD decoders are mainstream, the cinema is going to become quite obsolete.  With HD-DVD, I get all the benefits of the movie house, and none of the sticky floors, people taking, blind projectionists who can’t focus the picture, cell phones going off etc etc.  And, I can pause whenever I want.  I LOVE the HD era.

I won Cape Town NuMetro PGR3 Competition

Nu Metro, one of the major cinema companies here in South Africa, and Microsoft held a PGR3 competition.  In order to qualify, you had to purchase a movie ticket and set a lap time on one of the PGR3 tracks in an Aston Martin DB9.  The top 32 qualifiers would then race in a split screen knock-out type tournament in one of the cinemas, on the big screen.  I ended up qualifying 11th, and went along to the final today.

It was awesome!!!  They used a really nice projector (looked like 1080p) and everything was set up very well.  The sound was excellent, and the picture was superb.  Several people who qualified had obviously not played much before, and only got a good laptime on the qualy track by doing tons of laps.  There were some really good players though.  It ended up with myself and another guy in the final, who was definitly the best player there (besides me, but I’m not going to toot my own horn…. toot.).  We had a good close race in the final but I managed to stay ahead of him.

I won another Xbox 360.  I’m really chuffed, because I was very nervous when the whole thing started.  I must congratulate Gerhard (my opponent in the final) for a great race.  Also, thanks to Nu-Metro and Cinevation for coming up with this awesome competition.  I really enjoyed it, and hope there will be more like it in the future.

Disgruntled About Disk Replacement Policies

I am upset about the lack of customer service here in South Africa when it comes to replacing damaged game disks. Below is a letter I wrote to NAG Magazine (New Age Gaming), which probably the best gaming magazine in South Africa, and rates pretty highly worldwide. This should appear in the January issue:

I have a serious issue with the disk replacement policy, or lack thereof, exhibited at every South African Gaming retailer I’ve seen. The fact that I can’t return a damaged disk and receive a replacement is an outrage . I am more than willing to pay a small handling fee of R50 or so, but making me buy a new copy of a game I bought for more than R500 is ridiculous. The reason for this sad state of affairs may not be the fault of the retailer, but rather the distributor; I don’t know, but something must be done.

I purchased Project Gotham Racing 3 for XBOX 360 a few months ago, and REALLY enjoyed this game. Because I am very careful of scratches etc, I made sure I ALWAYS returned the disk to its case after use. However, this careful practise of clicking the disk into the case over and over again caused a small crack in the disk starting at the centre hub, eventually spreading into the data area of the disk, rendering it unusable. I had to purchase another copy in order to keep playing this game. I know of several people with similar stories. Sometimes, the disk is damaged due to negligence, which is why I am happy to pay a small replacement fee, to ensure people do look after their disks in a reasonable way.

Thinking about this lead me to thinking about DRM (Digital Rights Management), which basically is protection of intellectual property by using various methods of copy and usage protection? The studios (in the case of a movie) or the publishers (in the case of a game) insist that you do not own the digital information contained on a DVD or game disk you purchased, but merely have a license to use it as they see fit. That same argument surely cuts both ways, in that if I purchase a game or a movie on a fragile plastic disk, and the disk breaks or is damaged, my license to use or view the content is still valid. I didn’t pay R500 or more for a stupid little piece of plastic and a small booklet. I paid for the game or movie, or the “license” to view or play it.

I’ll be honest; I haven’t always paid for every game I’ve played in my life. Since I got my Xbox 360, (and what a great system it is!), I have become 100% legit, and will not even consider modding my console to play unoriginal games. I’m definitely not condoning piracy, but my issues mentioned above cause me (and millions like me) to rethink this decision. How does this help the gaming industry at all, if thousands of newly reformed ex-pirates decide paying twice for a game is insane, and simply go back to their old ways?

I trust somebody in the gaming industry will read these thoughts and remedy this situation. I know a friend of mine in the USA damaged one of his game disks and EB Games replaced the disk for him at no charge. I don’t know if this is something they do for all their customers or if he was just lucky, but I do know that here in South Africa, he would have gone home a very bleak boy. Surely, as long as I can give them a damaged original disk, case and booklet etc, that is proof enough that I do have a valid claim to a replacement?

Duncan Rae

Xbox Live GamerTag: DuncThePunk

GamerScore: The good, the bad, and the Ugly

Ahhh. GamerScore. For the uninformed, GamerScore is a points system Microsoft created for use with the Xbox 360, and will soon be ported over to PC and mobile games with the “Live Anywhere” initiative. Basically, each retail Xbox 360 title can have up to 1000 GS available, and downloadable arcade games have 200, which are allocated to achievements, that the developer can use in many interesting ways to add excitement to the game or encourage completion on a harder level, and maybe, take the player into areas of the game they wouldn’t normally go. A good example of this is Call of Duty 2, where in order to complete the game and receive the full 1000 GS, you must complete the game on the ludicrously difficult Veteran level. Ordinarily, I would have finished this game in Normal, and that would have been it. Thanks to my obsessive competition gene, I just had to get the 1000 GS, and I’m so glad I did. The game comes alive at Veteran level, and I’ve never, ever, felt such a sense of accomplishment at getting to the next checkpoint. Another good example is Far Cry, which has achievements allocated to each game type in single and multiplayer. In order to get the full 1000, you need to have played, accomplished several kills and won several times in each type of game. Unfortunately for Far Cry, I didn’t like the game very much, and didn’t bother with getting those achievements. Seemed just a bit too much like hard work if the game doesn’t grab you.

Which segways nicely into my next point. The bad of GamerScore. GamerScore can become a futile addiction. A never ending pursuit of that next thousand. If you are involved in a community of players, and have a large friends list, the competition can become quite intense. The advent of Xbox Live Leader boards hasn’t helped matters at all. Suddenly, being just off the first page re-ignites a fire of rage, and you’ll find yourself walking to the mall and going straight to the game store to buy another 1000GS worth of game. This is where is starts to get ugly. Suddenly you’re playing a game you hate, just to get through it for maximum GS. You start to turn down invitations to play games online unless you can get GS out of it. You start to lose all sense of fun and enjoyment as it becomes your all encompassing life goal. You pass 5000, then 10000. Still, you want more. You’re deep in debt; you have no friends left, either real or online. You’re starting to turn grey due to lack of sunlight and adequate nutrition. Then, all of a sudden, it hits you. Gamerscore has taken over your life.

You decide to stop with this futile chase. You’ll never have the highest GS. There will always be someone with more time and money than you.

This is where I find myself now. I have done the chase for a little while, spurred on by a number of fellow Xbox Live players to stay on the first page. I’ve since re-evaluated my stance. A high GamerScore is really not something worth pursuing. Achievements are worth chasing, as the sense of accomplishment and reward can be extremely gratifying, however I no longer compare myself to others based on GamerScore alone. I look deeper, into how they achieved that score. High scores for games like PGR3, MotoGP, Call of Duty 2 etc are worth far more than King Kong, FIFA RTWC etc, which have GS so easy to achieve it’s almost insulting.

So, Gamerscore. It’s good, no doubt, but it can be bad, and even downright ugly. Enjoy it, and let it be something to help you experience games like never before, but it shouldn’t be what your gaming life is about, at least not for me.