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Monday, December 27, 2010

COD:Black Ops - One of the best war movies I've seen recently...

Now past the billion dollar sales point, Call of Duty: Black Ops, the seventh game of the series, and the third by developer Treyarch, has been a huge success, At least sales wise. But what to make of the game itself?

I preordered the game, based on my enjoyment of several of the past games in the series. Not something I do often - too many recent games have turned out to be turds in a punchbowl, so I now wait until I've heard from my 'buy everything' gaming pals, or get some hands-on time with a new game before shelling out my shekels.

I figured the online MP experience would be plagued with issues on release (it was), and did not even bother to install the game or play it on release day. I ended up so busy playing other games, I'd not gotten around to it until recently.

One of my constant gaming buddies got the game as a gift, and I watched a bit of his game play in single player. It sparked my interest, so here's my nutshell review.

First, a note on my biases: I am mostly interested in single player these days. I retired from competitive gaming, and pubbing is filled with far too many cheats / hacks / noodle-heads to have much fun. I limit my online play to games where my close gaming cohorts are the only other players. They're all good enough that cheating is out of the question for them.

I fired up the single-player campaign, to be met with the typical, long (looooooonnnggg) 'intro' video that the player is forced to watch before getting into the action. Ugh.

And therein lies the crux of my complaint with this game. Far too much of the game is cut-scenes, most where the player is unable to skip viewing. F.E.A.R. got this right: you had to watch such scenes on first play, but after that, you could elect to skip them. Added to this, some of the scenes are ridiculously long. Seriously. One of them is so long, I'm quite certain I could cook myself a nice breakfast, and eat it, before the scene is over.

A few of the scenes can be skipped (too few, in my opinion) but sometimes it's with a mouse click, sometimes with a space bar hit. What? Did anyone Q/A this thing?

To add insult to injury, at the conclusion of one cut-scene (one of those, like in a lame movie, where they run out of time / budget, so they end with the "it was really a dream in the mind of the dog owned by the sister of the neighbor that lived behind the house where the ghost of the axe murderer was seen by the uncle of the bank president that loaned the money to the owner of the pet shop the dog came from in return for sex with what turned out to be his long-lost sister"...you get the idea), you as the player have to endure a long sequence of slow-motion navigating of a government building, interspersed with more cut-scene flashbacks, where your only action is to move your avatar through what feels like air made of clear gelatin. Slow, slow, slow, and boring as hell.

If that kind of 'play' is not irritating enough, there are plenty of cut-scenes that are long enough to put you to sleep, only to find that the instant the cut-scene ends, you were supposed to press some key, or click some mouse button, to rescue your avatar from certain death.

Even when you are actually playing, there are far too many places where you must follow an NPC, and you are strictly limited to a narrow corridor of play, with no way to 'pass' the NPC, as if they had a ten foot wide Plexiglas sheet strapped to their back. More of an 'interactive' cut-scene than real game play.

That aside, the campaigns are challenging enough, particularly on the highest difficulty levels. But there's nothing really fresh here.

If you've played past recent releases of the series, you've played this game already: shoot a bunch of baddies, blow up this and that, get this or that important thingy, cut some wires, slap some fools around in the name if interrogation, etc. Same game, different scenery.

That graphics are fine, actually quite good: humans look and act pretty human, the AI of the NPC (friendly and enemy) seldom does anything really stupid, though you certainly won't be fooled into thinking there's anything human about them. Avatar movement is also pretty well done.

A nice assortment of weapons is available, so you mostly get to choose how to accomplish your slaughter to your liking.

The full single player game is rather short (I'd guess 4-6 hours for a player familiar with the series), and leads you to the best part of the game, in my opinion: a very well done, very funny scene with banter between several luminaries from the times of the game, resulting in battle with Nazi zombies. The Zombie mode of the game provides a challenging and fun game, sure to please fans of games like the past COD Zombie modes or Left 4 Dead.

Overall, the game feels, to me, like one where an epic, detailed game was planned, that might have provided 20+ hours of single-player involvement, but someone said "No way!", and too many key elements were turned into arduous cut-scenes.

The game, apart from that, feels lovingly made. But, I wouldn't eat a lovingly made shit pie, nor would I recommend it to my friends. Fans of the series will find it a must play, just as fans of Star Wars will buy every DVD in the series despite some of the films being turkeys.

Really, if the developer / publisher continue on this route, why not just make the next game in the series a theatrical release, where moviegoers get a fake game controller, and can pretend they're 'playing' the new COD?

B- on a good day, C+ on days when I'm grumpy.


Monday, December 20, 2010

The Father of Modern Gaming: An excellent profile of Shigeru Miyamoto in The New Yorker.

If you're a gamer, you owe it to yourself to acquire a copy of the December 20 & 27 2010 issue of the magazine The New Yorker.

An excellent, lengthy article on Shigeru Miyamoto, arguably the father of modern gaming and gaming consoles will be found starting on page 86. A delightful read, even if you are not a console gamer.

If you are unable to peruse a physical copy, the complete article is available at the time of this blog entry's writing at The New Yorker Online.


Sushi For Your Gaming: Hamachi VPN for LAN multiplayer over the internet.

I've recently been playing some older games (Rainbow Six series) in co-op multi-player mode with some gaming buddies. An issue often faced when playing online, particularly with older games, is the availability of the various servers (log-in / authentication / etc.) from the publisher to enable this mode of play.

Sometimes, the servers are unavailable for maintenance or other reasons, sometimes they've been completely shut down when the game is at "end of life" by the publisher. What's a gamer to do that still enjoys playing with geographically dispersed friends for games that fall into these holes?

So long as the game incorporates a LAN multi-player aspect, this can be easily accomplished with the most excellent Hamachi VPN from LogMeIn.

In a nutshell, Hamachi provides a painless, zero-configuration (95% success) Virtual Private Network facility ideally suited to online gaming (unlike a typical VPN, Hamachi will pass broadcast and multi-cast traffic, vital for proper functioning of most LAN games.)

Non-commercial use is free, setup is quick and painless. The service provides a web-based interface to create networks, manage clients, and deploy customized client installers. The latter facility enables players with no technical expertise to easily become a member of your private gaming network without any Hamachi configuration - just a simple installation is required.

Mesh (all members can 'see' all other members), Hub-and-Spoke (Members are connected to hubs, hubs 'see' all members, members see only the hubs), and Gateway (members 'see' the entire physical network, and share its address space) networks are supported, Mesh being the most appropriate for most WAN based LAN gaming.

A really fantastic free service with very respectable performance and reliability, and security (encryption of data flow) when desired.

Its use is of course not limited to gaming: it makes a fine VPN for accessing your LAN while out on the road for general use.

A few caveats for gamers (these apply to the 'host' or originator of the network, and the clients / members):
  • Most games will use the 'first' LAN network adapter found on the machine for traffic. You must ensure that the Hamachi 'adapter' (actually a virtual adapter installed by Hamachi that is treated by the operating system as a real, physical adapter) is 'first' in the list. Failure to do so may result in an inability to connect the participating PCs together in the game (clients may not 'see' the server / host, etc.) You can adjust this by going to the advanced settings in your network connections control panel window (see image below), and using the arrows next to the connections window on the adapters and bindings tab. Move Hamachi to the top. You might need to reboot your machine for the changes to take effect.
  • Recent versions of Windows (7, and probably Vista though I've not verified this) have changed the behavior of broadcast traffic routing. This one had me head-scratching for a bit! Before, such traffic would be sent on the adapter used for the connection. In recent Windows, this order is ignored, and the adapter with the lowest interface metric will be used, regardless of its order in the adapters connections list. The result is symptoms similar to the adapter itself not being seen as 'first': clients will likely not see the server / host, or not be able to connect successfully. To remedy this, right-click on the Hamachi adapter in your network connections control panel window, select properties, double-click on the Internet Protocol Version 4 item, and click on the advanced button in the lower right of the dialog. Set the Interface Metric to 1 and reboot your machine (you can also try just disabling and re-enabling the Hamachi adapter in lieu of rebooting.) The default metric used by Hamachi of 9000 causes broadcast traffic to route over your 'real' NIC, causing connection issues for the games. Network internals savvy users may recognize there are other means to accomplish this end. Feel free to experiment - you won't permanently break anything.
Give it a look and a try. As long as a game supports LAN multi-player, you will always be able to enjoy it with friends in the cloud using this nifty tool.


One of the funniest persons I've read.


I laugh hard every time I visit.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Aimbots In Real Life: DARPA's Advanced Sighting System.

Thanks to a SpecOps buddy for ringing me up with information that pointed me to the sources for this post.

One of the biggest banes of snipers is wind. It is difficult to estimate speed and direction of winds between the shooter and a potential target, and not unusual for there to be currents and eddies going many directions and speeds along the route of the bullet. This can cause gross inaccuracies in the shots: even under just 10 MPH crosswinds, accuracy of snipers is seen to drop dramatically at ranges over 300 meters.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) put out an RFP some years back for a next-generation sight system to enhance the capabilities of snipers. Known as the Advanced Sighting System (later simplified to the "One Shot" system), this technology will soon be in the hands of test soldiers, with a contract awarded to Lockheed Martin for the initial units. Lockheed Martin had been the winner of the original early prototype contract in 2008, where units showed a twofold to fourfold increase in first shot hits, and a halving of target acquisition time.

The units utilize a ~50μJ, 10ns pulsed laser to 'slice' samples of the air between the shooter and the target (getting the exact range to the target for 'free' in the process.) The aerosol back-scatter of the slices is analyzed by a sensor (either an array, or a single sensor with the laser placed in multiple sample positions per slice) to produce a time cross-correlation. This correlation of the scintillation provides information about the air movement at that slice. The system then calculates the resulting ballistics corrections, and the data is used to 'zero' the reticule for the shooter.

The benefits are myriad, chiefly:
  • No need for a spotter to guess the range.
  • No guessing of wind velocity, direction, variation and thermal effects down range.
  • No math calculations for spotter or shooter, nor manual adjustments.
  • Vastly reduced sniper training requirements.
  • <1 second from target acquisition to trigger pull.
It's an aim-bot for real life.

Boom. Head shot. At 2000 Meters.


Details of the award can be found at the article in Military & Aerospace Electronics.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On the subject of rants...

Here's a good one, by Jeff Roberts, a developer for the hugely popular RAD Game Tools. It discusses aliasing in C (more precisely, problems that strict aliasing rules in compilers cause that screw up his code results).

Strict aliasing can result in large performance benefits via compiler optimizations, but it can 'break' otherwise valid code (even the Linux kernel doesn't follow the rules: see lkml.org for a post by Linus Torvalds regarding the insanity.)

The original post from Jeff titled Strict Aliasing... makes for amusing and illuminating reading, as does the rest of his blog. I think he and I would get along swimmingly.


Oops!BSD? We might need to re-evaluate our beliefs in the security of OpenBSD.

OpenBSD is widely hailed as the most secure of the generally available non-hardened operating systems (that is, excluding operating systems designed to specific security constraints, such as GEMSOS, and LOCK).

A recently released email might change this view, if found to not be a hoax.

See http://marc.info/?l=openbsd-tech&m=129236621626462&w=2 and prepare to don your conspiracy hats...

As an aside, I can highly recommend the book "Operating System Security (Synthesis Lectures on Information Security, Privacy, and Trust)" by Trent Jaeger for an excellent review of trusted operating systems to the interested reader.


Bailing on BASH, forum idiocy, Et cetera.

It has been a long time since I had a rant post. Or any post, for that matter: Busy with other projects, my daughter (accepted into Stanford early admission, congratulations JC!), and other miscellanea. So, if you're easily offended, best skip this one...seriously. For that matter, if a rant itself will bother you, just skip reading. This is not the typical post here (I think I've really ranted only once before.) You have been warned.

Ramming Speed! (nod to Ben Hur...)

Anyone that has followed me in forums (or knows me personally) knows that I'm a thermonuclear bomb directed at stupidity / unctuousness / marketing snake oil. I really do think the world would be a better place if more took aim at such nonsense: embarrass most fools enough, they'll go away, leaving a better quality pool in the end.

I directed readers to the excellent forum and podcasts on BashandSlash many posts ago, and have been a lightly active poster there since. A recent podcast, however, raised my hackles with its fulsome (not in a good sense)  interview of a 'community representative' for DICE. Simply put, no hard questions were asked, and the interviewee  exhibited the (unfortunately all too common these days) sliminess of a used car salesman. I said it in a forum post there, and I'll repeat it here: Anyone that can fling BS in the name of their 'job' is a perfidious douche nozzle.

And letting them get away with it is a disservice to the PC gaming community. It lowers the bar yet further. I may be Patton to the host's Gandhi, but really, if all one's journalistic intent is is to be a conduit for the game publisher's advertisements, why bother?

Now, in my post (I'd link it, but it appears the thread is gone (from an edit updating the content, not from any kind of 'get rid of his post' action)), I replied to someone that contrasted this 'community representative' to a podcast of a different sort (Crosshairs), where recent shows have had the most interesting John Gibson from Tripwire Interactive as a guest.

John's honesty and openness is a refreshing change from the marketing BS, and outright lies, that the PC community has seen from several of these 'community representatives'. (As an aside, just who do they represent? The cowering, sugar-coating PC public that will take the recent crap labeled as games and eat it with a smile? They certainly don't seem represent the best interests of me, or any of my gaming friends...)

My reply contained the quote above, along with the statement (contrasting the typical 'community representative' with John Gibson) "Most serious gamers would more likely punch lame-toe and IQ_20.20 in the face if they met them..."

Somehow, this was twisted into a 'threat of personal violence' (by my hands) toward one 'Robert Bowling' by the host. Huh? I never used that name, nor have I ever had any interactions with or about that person. Beats me. Maybe Canadian English works differently than mine. In any case, I was issued a warning in the forum by the host. A perfervid response, I think.

Last straw for me: I will not walk on eggshells, much less imaginary ones, for people I don't even know (one Mr. Bowling), so I asked to be immediately removed as a member. No milquetoast clubs for me.

I want to be clear - I have no intrinsic qualms with the host (Jockyitch) - he seems like a straight shooter, and it is his board / forum / podcast, and his rules. I simply think being Mother Teresa as a journalist does us in the PC community little good in putting pressure on the developers and publishers to reverse the rapid downward spiral of the last few years in PC game quality and their rush to powder the hineys of the console crew. It is the action I have an issue with: it results in silencing dissent that further enables the marketing BS behaviors of developers and publishers with no benefit to PC gamers.

Squelching views not to one's liking, or not to one's tea-and-crumpet politeness standard has the same chilling effect. Worse has been said directly at the same interviewee in their very own forums where they have moderator status. To their credit, such posts remain, excluding of course seriously out of line "I'll kill you if I find you" kind of posts. Not that I need that to justify my sentiments to myself: Marketing BS pawns are the plague of the earth. Well, at least one of the plagues.

Spirited, sometimes harsh, occasionally rude interaction is just a part of free speech.  I myself have been guilty of less than parliamentary politeness in interchanges with idiots (see below). Then again, maybe that's a poor example of a standard - have you ever watched the verbal volleys fired in the House of Commons?

Saying someone might punch someone is not a personal threat of violence, it is a metaphor for the level of displeasure many PC gamers feel.

At the same time, I advised the host of the companion show Crosshairs of this action, and that I should probably not participate in future podcasts: there is no way I can interact like some sodium thiopental laced patient, bleary-eyed with a drool festooned grin mouthing "Oh, yeah, Isn't it all just grand!" because it 'fits' the peace-loving agenda of the host. Or in this case, actually, the host's parent host: Crosshair's host Iblleedv20 can be  a contrarian sometimes: he is just much more civilized at it than me.

I will miss being a member of Crosshairs: some very cool, very smart people are regular participants. I highly advise that you take a listen, if you haven't already, and also to the parent Bash casts.

I wish both hosts the best in their endeavors.

Rant, part Deux: Forum Stupidity.

For Christ's sake, is it that hard, if you disagree with someone in a forum post, to at least know what you're talking about before posting a retort? Anything else just spreads misinformation to the naive reader, and makes the reply look like that of a fool to those that do know what they're talking about.

Case in point, one of the last threads in the forums involved, having to do with the miserable sound quality of a game soundtrack demo. You can see the thread here. Now, I'm pretty sure a monkey could discern that the 'strings' are fake. And poor ones at that. Like a 'real' Ming vase found in a box of Cracker Jacks kind of real.

I stated such. This inane response followed (to which I did not reply - my account was deleted per my wishes):

Clearly you are not a musician.

1. A high school orchestra wouldn't be professional enough to tackle a full soundtrack. They'd come in late, they'd come in flat or sharp, the string section would have tuning issues.

2. What I've heard here sounds nothing like a $29.99 Walmart keyboard. I have no idea what you're talking about. You might need better speakers or headphones, though.

3. No one uses a "synthesizer" for orchestral music production anymore. Professional composers use samples, recorded off of REAL instruments. Synthesized implies that the sound is created synthetically, mathematically. I am fairly certain what is being used here are samples, at least from what I can hear. Actually it sounds pretty convincing to me, I'm not sure what you're listening to, Rob.

 Let's take this piece by piece, and see why I think it's a pretty stupid response (and unfortunately typical of self-proclaimed experts in all too many forums.)

 Clearly you are not a musician.:

And the relevance of this is...what? This is a typical tactic of the weak-minded / unarmed with facts poster. A type of straw man argument (fictitious persona) to attempt to cloud the reader's sense of the real argument. Of course, this person knows nothing about my musical background. Even if they did, it has no relevance.

Audiophiles have long noted musicians having really terrible audio systems that 'sound fine' to the musician. Some have theorized it is due to the constant exposure to real instruments allowing those listener's brains to compensate for the poor sound, though I know of no academic study ever done to test this. I can speak from personal experience - I've seen this to be the case often with musician friends of mine, one particularly excruciating system belonging to a world-renowned conductor. If anything, not being a musician might be an advantage based on these observations.

A high school orchestra wouldn't be professional enough to tackle a full soundtrack...:

And your evidence is? You were in a crappy one, perhaps? Anyone that has heard a truly outstanding high school  orchestra (and they do exist) will spot this as ridiculous.

What I've heard here sounds nothing like a $29.99 Walmart keyboard. I have no idea what you're talking about. You might need better speakers or headphones, though.:

This kind of reply content toward me, or others, particularly tickles my funny bone. Again, a fictitious persona is created, and the implication is made the the replying poster's argument must be correct because he/she has 'better equipment', or is otherwise better 'equipped'.  You never know when you might be addressing someone that has headphones worth more (and of higher quality) than your entire system. Or speakers worth more than your house, with concomitant quality. And in this case, ears to match.

It should be noted, this poster, nickname "golden_ear" (a self-labeling of many that think they have magical abilities in listening skills), joined and posted their one and only post supporting a prior reply to me in the thread by poster "X", nearly immediately followed by one of those "oh, yeah, you are soooo right!" posts by the same poster "X". Please, if you're going to resort to using Internet Sock Puppetry, try and do a better job of making it look legit...

No one uses a "synthesizer" for orchestral music production anymore. Professional composers use samples, recorded off of REAL instruments. Synthesized implies that the sound is created synthetically, mathematically. I am fairly certain what is being used here are samples, at least from what I can hear. Actually it sounds pretty convincing to me.

Now, here's where the poster shows how clueless they are. Anyone knowledgeable about music synthesis of course knows that sampled / multi-sampled synthesizers are still synthesizers. A quick ring to Ray Kurzweil, the father of modern synthesizers that can fool many will confirm the correct terminology - don't take my word for it. As for it sounding pretty convincing? Well, dear reader, take a listen to the audio in the referenced thread. I would personally be stunned if more than 20% of listeners could not immediately discern the 'strings' are not real. As for the alleged, self-proclaimed musician(s) in the thread (I qualify the plurality in light of the likely sock puppet involved) that are convinced by it - perhaps a different line of work might lead to better success.

Ahhh, I feel better now.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Hear You!: A fantastic DAW (Digital Audio Worstation) application previously unknown to me.

It's been a while since I've done any serious mixing work, Cubase and Acid being my workhorses. A recent conversation with an audio engineering buddy pointed me to Reaper. In a nutshell, after a few days of experimentation: what a fantastic piece of software!

This is a serious piece of software, a worthy replacement in most cases for Cubase / Acid / et alia (at least for my needs), and at a ridiculously low price for professional use. The non-professional license price is so low, one might feel like 'donating' a few extra shekels to the developer in appreciation for a great product, with a no-nonsense licensing scheme.

Well done, Justin Frankel and Cockos!

I See You!: How clever optics are letting us image planets around other stars.

A quick note on an interesting and very accessible paper titled "An apodizing phase plate coronagraph for VLT/NACO" that discusses the emerging technology used to allow direct imaging of remote planets that would normally be difficult at best due to the (relatively) overpowering brightness of the planet's parent star.

The meat of the result can be seen in the point spread function graph, lower right, on page two: note the distinct reduction of the Airy disk and associated diffraction pattern on the right section of the graph.

Check it out at: An apodizing phase plate coronagraph for VLT/NACO on arXiv.org.