Playing Quarrel for the first time is one of the strangest gaming experiences I've had for a while, and it was definitely unrelated to the 12th cup of tea of the day. Sometimes games feel so familiar and perfectly formed that you assume that you must have played them before in some nascent form, possibly sometime in the late 1980s before mullets were officially outlawed.
But no. Despite concerted internet searches and experimental primal scream therapy, it turns out that Quarrel wasn't some sort of gaming deja vu, but was thrust, fully formed, onto the unsuspecting App Store on August 25th 2011. Its unheralded arrival immediately galvanised the clever swines of the world into trying to describe it adequately. The best one yet ("Scrabble x Risk x Countdown") is also one of the most irritatingly concise, and also sums it up perfectly. As Denki amusingly points out, words (11 points) literally speak louder than actions (8 points).
There I was about to blather haplessly about its ingenious mixture of Scrabble wordplay and land-grab turn-based board game strategy, while some one else pressed the buzzer and won the internet. This also possibly explains why I am not very good at Quarrel and don't sip champagne on a yacht while dolphins pirouette in the background. But general inadequacy has never been a problem before, and it isn't here either. With Quarrel it really isn't about the winning but the taking part - at least not for habitual losers like me that enjoy flustered wordplay punishment. Besides, it's fun to tell you all over again why it's ace and thoroughly deserves a place in Eurogamer's hallowed Christmas games of the year selection.
For those of you still unaware of its BAFTA award-winning charms, the crux of Quarrel is, like Scrabble, all about trying to craft the most valuable word out of a collection of letter tiles, each valued in precisely the same way that you'll be familiar with. That alone might not be especially interesting, but grafting these core mechanics onto a time-pressured head-to-head game of turn-based strategy most certainly is.
Whether you elect to sidle up for an elegant two-player quickie or opt for a sweaty Krankie-sized four-player marathon, it plays out the same way, with each of you in possession of an equal number of territories on an island map. To win, obviously, means capturing all of them by crushing your opponent with your devastatingly fast word formation skills - and the occasional piece of desk-thumping, temple-throbbing luck.
As simple as it sounds, it's always a wickedly finely balanced affair, and therefore a game that you never seem to want to stop playing. Like Risk, you have a finite number of troops (automatically) dished out across your territories at the start of the game, and once it's your turn to dish out the pain, you have to weigh up which territories are most advisable to invade.
Unless you positively sweat confidence (in which case, get in line for the next Old Spice ad), the most obvious thing to do is be a bullying git and win via weight of numbers. The basic gist of the battle is that the number of units you have on each territory translate to the number of letter tiles you'll get to fight with in that battle, so for instance, if you've got the maximum eight units, it'd be easy enough to claim a territory defended by a paltry five units. That said, it's still possible to pull off a flukey win if a) you're quick and form the word before your rival and, and b) you're lucky enough that the options are horribly limited.
Eventually, though, you'll either push your luck or run out of steam and play then passes to the next player in clockwise order. But even when it's no longer your turn, the fact that the game keeps you involved by allowing you to prove that you've got the fastest fingers. Apart from anything else, it's good practice, and sharpens the mind to keep training yourself under pressure.
Even if all of this was presented with all the panache of an errant child, it'd still be extra-brilliant. The fact that Denki has bothered to infuse it with such slick, characterful professionalism makes an absolute mockery of its £2.99 price tag. You're probably as bored reading about amazing cheap games by now as we are banging on about them, but, bear with me, Mr Impatient. A few years ago no-one would have batted an eyelid about paying £25 for a game with as much replayability as this. There's even a free version to check out if you're averse to the idea of prescribed fun.
The fact that Scottish geniuses Denki had one hell of a faff even getting it to market probably tells you all you need to know about the kind of dunderheads responsible for bringing games to market in 2011. Go back 18 months, and the developer was forced to lay off most of its talented staff just to stay afloat. But with an equal portion of resolve and persistence, they've not only turned around a really bad situation, but shown what a ridiculous rejection it was in the first place.
Back then, on its Black Easter Monday, Denki's managing director Colin Anderson commented bleakly, and accurately: "This industry doesn't value good games. Players do, but the games industry doesn't." At the time, he was reminded exactly why it got out of the traditional publisher-funded model in the first place and escaped to the Siberian salt mines of interactive television games. But now, like so many of the world's best developers, the company has figured out, wisely, that going "straight to the people who play games and value games" is the way forward. With a bit of help from UTV Ignition, it has essentially flicked the Vs at those who wouldn't know a classic game if it personally fellated them in their own homes.
And if you've got some sort of pathological aversion to enjoying games on iOS platforms, then, worry not. Despite the XBLA version having been seemingly written off earlier last year, it's back on the agenda again, with PSN and Steam version to follow sometime in 2012. In generations to come, all but the beard-stroking sages of gaming lore will know of the struggle that Quarrel had, but as long as the cream rises to the top, it matters not.
It feels very appropriate to be writing about Mario in the run up to Christmas. Even though his games make no explicit reference to The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and in fact are often blatantly summery with their primary colours and warm blue skies, there's just something inherently festive about the squat plumber and his surreal world.
Maybe that's why it's been Super Mario 3D Land that has kept me coming back, alternating with Skyrim for my gaming attention these past few months.
Obviously, the game features a jolly fellow with a bulging tummy and a fondness for red clothing. That he clearly takes great pleasure in descending down enclosed spaces - green pipes, chimneys, whatever - is the icing on a Santa-shaped cake.
But Mario's festive credentials go deeper than that. Buried right in the DNA of Super Mario Land 3D is something that goes beyond the surface trappings of what is "Christmassy" and cuts straight to the heart of the holiday. Mario is about joy.
It's true of most Mario games, of course, but there's something about the handheld intimacy of Super Mario Land 3D, something in the way the 3D effect makes it feel more than ever like a delightful parallel universe you can almost reach out and touch, that makes this a particularly potent example of what makes the plumber so special.
Like all the best Christmases, Super Mario 3D Land is both comfortingly familiar and thrillingly new. It's steeped in Nintendo lore, and makes no secret of its desire to win you over with fondly remembered audio and visual cues. Over a quarter century of gaming, Mario has stayed true to his original aesthetic so even now you can draw a direct line from the latest title all the way back to the 1980s. The yellow blocks, the bulbous trees, the yelps and wahoos: all, in their own way, as traditional as mince pies, holly wreaths and overcooked sprouts.
But Super Mario Land 3D is also full of surprises. It strikes a near perfect balance of tried and trusted gameplay, spiced up with a procession of tweaks, twists and flourishes that constantly make you reconsider the basic hops and jumps. It's 2011, and we really shouldn't be surprised when a game puts us underwater or asks us to navigate platforms that unfold and unpack as we walk along, yet somehow Mario still has me grinning like a loon, perpetually delighted with each new level, whether I'm firing cannons in a desert or running around in a haunted house. The game bounds over my cynical adult defences and leaves me brimming with excitement at what the next level will hold, and the one after that, and the one after that.
It doesn't take long to romp through the game's eight worlds, of course. The levels are all bite-sized morsels, designed to fit into your bus journey, toilet time or whatever moments accompany your gaming-on-the-go, but where too many games see handheld as an excuse to go small (yes, Sonic, we're looking at you), Mario's stocking is deceptively roomy.
Beat the game and you unlock the second half, with even more new abilities and levels waiting to be mastered. And then there's a bit more. And, if you want the actual actual ending, you should finish all the levels with Mario and Luigi. It's another Mario tradition, but to see so much content squeezed into a format blighted by make-do efforts is still a true pleasure.
It's also wonderfully inclusive. The game is generous with extra lives and, in the early portion, offers invincibility to players who fail repeatedly. And while the structure may seem daunting, you can pretty much set your own victory criteria. If beating the first eight worlds is achievement enough, so be it. If you want to keep pushing yourself, the game offers enough evolutions to make that a viable goal as well.
Familiar and fresh. Predictable and surprising. Super Mario 3D Land is a delicious contradiction, and one that renders a lot of my critical faculties surplus to requirements. Every time grumbles about formula bubble to the surface, they're immediately popped by some charming twist.
Writing about games for a living, it can be difficult to truly lose yourself in a game. There's always a secondary narrative running in your head as you pick the experience apart through habit. That doesn't really happen with Super Mario 3D Land. On the rare moments that I mentally step back far enough to be self-conscious, I always find I've got the biggest, stupidest grin plastered across my face. It's a nice feeling.
And that's why, as much as I've immersed myself in the tale of the Dovahkiin, as much as GLaDOS made my neurons fire that little bit harder, it's Mario that not only defines my gaming year, but explains why I even play games in the first place.
About once a year, a game makes me want to write.
I don't mean criticism, a review or even a cutting tweet about how long it takes to open a bloody chest in Zelda. I mean fiction. For - er - money. Since I've been completely out of games journalism for over a year, it's fairly likely you won't know me, so I'm going to have to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry. That said, if you do know me, you won't be surprised that I'm going to write a bit about myself. I'm sorry.
Basically, I write comics for Marvel starring characters that even my mum has heard of, as well as a bunch that she hasn't. And while I enjoy games' genre fiction, it rarely does anything that screams that there's further novel stories in its world. Or, at least, further stories that wouldn't boil down to reheated genre pulp. The last game that made my writing instincts twitch was Arkham Asylum, which reminded me of the sheer physicality of the Batman in a way I'd previously forgotten. The latest, if the title at the top of the page hadn't given it away, is Saints Row: The Third.
Saints Row: The Third is apes**t.
It's not the story that I found most affecting this year. (That would probably be Bastion, which managed to find a perfect aesthetic nestling somewhere on the previously unexplored boundary between SNES action games and Cat Power.) It's not the best-designed narrative game of the year. (That would probably be SpaceChem, which is such a masterclass in design that it makes everyone else look a bit thick. Including the player, because it makes such enormous demands of you.) It's not the story which actually made me write a big ol' rambly rant about metaphors and stuff and things. (That would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)
But it is apes**t. And blither-provoking interesting apes**t, at that.
There've been plenty of essays complimenting Rockstar on their growing maturity across the decade. Fie on them! Saints Row: The Third says that Rockstar are quitters. Saints Row: The Third is the open-world game that makes even GTA at its silliest look like open-heart surgery in its seriousness. But Volition's game's lack of seriousness doesn't imply a lack of intelligence. As Adi Tantimedh wrote, "the ethos of the game's writers is the same as that of Monty Python's: that of smart people deliberately telling the most stupid joke they can possibly think of, as meticulously as possible."
It creates a world of loveable celebrity criminals in a lunatic society. They, because they possess the only sympathetic emotions presented (a loyalty to friends, good taste in hats, singing along to the radio) are much preferable to the array of jovial monsters they're thrown against. From casual dildo violence in the streets to defying a government task force which has decided to flatten the city to pacify these uppity tykes (i.e. you), its tone is constantly set to ludicrous. For me, it's this geniality which saves it from offensiveness. You'd call it satire if that didn't seem a bit too sober a description. I'd much prefer to say it's taking the piss.
None of this is real. More importantly, none of it tries to convince you with a shimmer of verisimilitude that it's closer to reality than it really is. We clearly know that Modern Warfare is nonsense, but it's selling itself to you as something else through the techno-thriller surface sheen. In Arkham City, the much discussed 'everyone-in-the-game-thinks-Catwoman-is-a-bitch' is actually about dirtying up a comic-book universe, and - for me - a little tawdry. Conversely, Saints Row, by its very nature, isn't doing any of that. It's trying to do the absolute opposite. It isn't trying to use "adult" language or situations to elevate. It's mocking all this while simultaneously celebrating it (because this isn't real, and the intensity of its imagery only underlines that). All of which means, it's a game that has its coke bowl and snorts it too.
It makes sure you understand it from the off. The mission escalates until you're falling from the sky, trying to catch up with a falling friend. "So what?" you're probably thinking. Yes, you're fighting dozens of people on the way down, but it's still a standard genre-movie move. It's at this point you realise you can have a crack at someone who's wronged you... at which point you re-drop the person you're carrying, crash through a jumbo jet's windscreen, fly through the entire plane, assassinate someone, burst out the other end and then manage to get back to the person you dropped in order to pull your parachute.
It could only be improved by you making out with the person you catch, and their head exploding due to the incredible orgasmic power your lips have unleashed in their all-too-frail form. And your motivation for the rest of the game is trying to atone for the carnage your phenomenal lovemaking powers have wreaked. By shooting people. With guns. Also, double-barrelled penis and/or death-vagina.
Well, that's what I'd write. I believe that more games should be autobiographic. (And I clearly illustrate why I shouldn't be let anywhere near this particular universe.)
OK - there's no double-barrelled penis, but it's the sort of game where you're actually surprised to discover doesn't include such nightmarish pump-action weaponry. They give you just about everything else. Because what I think I love most about Saints Row: The Third is that for a sub-genre which leaned so cynical in its early post-GTA days, Saints Row: The Third is a wonderfully generous game.
It bubbles with bonhomie. "Why not?" it says, when the player wants to try and do something ludicrous. "Sounds like a giggle." And if you scratch the surface of the offensiveness, it's even got something of a liberal character to it. Emma Boyes noted that a game which is often so openly sexist still managing to have more memorable female characters than the vast majority of its peers is almost heartwarming.
Yeah, heartwarming. That's what I feel when I think back on my time with Saints Row: The Third . There's the sense that with all the silliness flopping around, the developers are laughing along with you and just want to share it at its best with you. One of the most memorable moments for me wasn't any of the crafted set-pieces - though the S&M Club chase scene is unforgettable in a way which makes me suspect many sensitive folk would rather forget it - but just a tiny detail.
There's one of the collectables where you pose to take a photo with a fan. Wander up, interact with them, and they take a shot with your posing antihero - just a cute nod towards your celebrity status. Now, fast-forward to the final, forking mission, where there's an epic battle at a city junction. APCs and tanks and gangs and everything are kicking off against one another with every explosive device the game has seen fit to invent.
And, standing meekly at the corner, is a tourist, camera in hand, waving for you to come over.
If you can do it before they get flattened, the resultant shot inevitably has this grand melee behind it, with your character just beaming. It's a WISH YOU WERE HERE shot from the best kind of hell. And whoever placed that camera-wielder on the corner knew exactly that, knew how awesome the shot would look, and wanted the gamer to see it. A half-second's break as the game rushes towards its conclusion to nudge you, and with a little wink, say that this really has been a whole lot of fun.
That's Saints Row: The Third. That generosity of spirit and lightness of touch is rare enough, let alone in a game about genial sociopaths, for genial sociopaths. I can't wait to see what they do next. I certainly wouldn't be foolish enough to try and predict it.
Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a game. You know, like chess, or backgammon, or tic-tac-toe, or, heck, Kerplunk. There are two sides in play, you take it in turns to make your move and success demands skill, concentration and, occasionally, a dash of luck.
Why am I pointing out such an obvious truism? Well, in a year when most of the big AAA duckhunts doggedly insisted on leading the player by the hand from one scripted, retina-scorching set piece to the next, it was mightily refreshing to see a mainstream console title really explore the millenia-old science of play and offer the grey matter some nourishment.
In a similar fashion to, say, Advance Wars before it, Capybara's phenomenal puzzle RPG reveled in the primal thrill of competition, of using your smarts to slowly grind down a seemingly more powerful opponent, of gradually mastering a rule set that at first sight seems bewilderingly complex.
For the uninitiated, it's a lavish re-imagining of a forgotten DS gem, expanded, re-balanced and rebuilt from the ground up. Spun-off from Ubisoft's dusty, dyed-in-the-wool RPG franchise, Clash of Heroes is essentially a match-three puzzler with some narrative window-dressing and character progression thrown in, a la Puzzle Quest.
If your mouse cursor is currently hovering over the 'back' button, I'd urge you to read on, because the gameplay system at Clash of Heroes' core is a thing of rare, bewitching beauty - a creation so deep and so elegant that it will keep you up at night pondering its intricacies.
In summary - as your hero wanders from node to node on the game's railed world map you'll sporadically be thrown into battle, with your army of units lining up facing that of your opponent. Each turn gives you three moves to shuffle your troops around in an effort to line up three units of the same colour. Match them up along the horizontal and your units combine into a defensive wall that sprouts up ahead of your front line.
However, if you match them along a vertical, they'll link together into one unit and begin charging up for an attack. That takes a set number of turns depending on the unit type but once it's maxed out, the unit will race up the screen and attack its opposing numbers. Should it be powerful enough to break through enemy lines and reach the top of the screen, it will take hit points off your opponent. The first one to zero loses.
Capybara then proceeds to pile on additional depth. Matching two sets of units in one move gives you an extra turn. Combine more than one triplet of units of the same colour and strength in one turn and they'll link together across the board, exponentially increasing their cumulative HP as they charge. Successfully stack an additional set of three on a charging unit of the same colour and your soldiers will combine for a massive attack.
On top of all that, you've got a magic meter that builds up as you take hits, Elite and Champion unit types that you unlock as you progress and special artifacts that you can equip to afford yourself additional powers, such as regenerating walls or boosted HP. Oh, and each of your unit types has a different attack strategy - for example, some are pure muscle, others cast spells that drain HP over an extended period of time and others freeze charging units so they miss turns. Like I said, deep.
While at first daunting, it's a joy to witness Capy's layer cake design push you further and further as the game progresses, slowly piling on the complexity and ratcheting up the pressure. It's the only game I've played this year that has continued to gnaw away at my brain as I lay in bed trying to sleep. I've seen battle formations seemingly materialise in plates of food, puzzle solutions come to me as I'm doing the dishes and eureka moments appear out of nowhere while doodling mindlessly on a notepad mid phone conversation. If there's a videogame equivalent of an earworm (a mindworm?), this is surely it.
And it's testament to how absorbing the gameplay is that the game's lovely Saturday morning cartoon visuals only warrant a footnote. The truth is, the combat system is so precisely formed that it would work just as well if the units were simply differently coloured circles, squares or triangles. That said, Capy's delicious character design is further icing on the cupcake.
Rather than prosaic orcs and elves, we get armour-clad grizzly bears that tear through enemy lines; death-dealing unicorns that leap over opposition's defences; blunderbuss-wielding gremlins that chirp evilly as they pepper the enemy with buckshot; and smirking succubi that sashay across the battlefield engulfing your foes in flame. It's a memorable cast.
There is a price to pay for all that hand-drawn animation. Clash of Heroes is a memory-guzzler and the loading screens in the console versions are long, frequent and patience-sapping. The recently-released PC version is the way to go here.
It was harder to dig out the gems amidst Xbox Live Arcade and PSN's increasingly cluttered and less quality-controlled output this year but, along with Bastion and From Dust, Capy's effort undoubtedly shone the brightest. Kudos too to Ubisoft for, along with Outland, Chahi's aforementioned god game and, hopefully, I Am Alive, showing some imagination in their downloadable output.
Alas, judging by the sparsely populated online lobbies soon after launch, it was a title that many passed over, perhaps thanks to that generic fantasy moniker. A pity, because Clash of Heroes provided some of the purest gameplay of 2011 - the product of a development team that clearly understands why people still play mahjong, or Risk, or Go, generations after they were first conceived. Now that the November blockbuster blitzkrieg is over, there's no better time to discover what you missed out on.
If golf is a good walk spoiled, StreetPass Quest might be the exact opposite. It's a good walk enhanced: a simple amble across town rendered tactical, speculative and even quietly thrilling. "Gather heroes, fight ghosts and collect hats," says the blurb that introduces the 3DS' unlikely killer app. Sold. As far as I'm concerned, that's pretty much the entire appeal of modern video games boiled down into a single sentence.
On some level, of course, it's all just a smart piece of strategizing. Paul Auster once said that if you wander around with a pencil and paper in your pocket all the time, there's a chance that, one day, you'll actually use them, and Nintendo clearly thinks the same is true for a handheld console - although, happily, there's a reduced chance that anybody will have to slog through The Book of Illusions as a result.
Nintendo might be onto something, too. Because of StreetPass Quest, I've been taking my 3DS everywhere with me for the last nine months. It's a large part of why I came to love the weird little device even before Super Mario 3D Land turned up and gave us all a much more legitimate reason to.
If you haven't played StreetPass Quest, the basics are pretty simple. At heart, the game's a rudimentary and entirely rigid dungeon crawler in which you work your way through a series of different rooms, battling monsters and unlocking treasure chests, all of which contain hats for your Mii. The twist is that you need to harvest adventurers to do the actual fighting for you, and you do this either by collecting other people's Miis via StreetPass - the exchange system that allows 3DS owners to passively trade data in public - or, if you happen to live in the sticks or are surrounded by the Amish, by buying them with the coins you earn with the console's on-board pedometer.
Each time you encounter the same Mii on your travels, they'll level up when they next appear within your game. This is handy, because StreetPass Quest is astonishingly grindy. Not only do most low-level heroes inflict only the tiniest amount of damage on the enemies they come across before sloping off with fatigue, you'll have to play through the entire suite of dungeons multiple times if you're going to collect all the hats on offer. And you are going to collect all the hats on offer, okay?
It's around this point that I should probably admit that, when you get down to it, StreetPass Quest is a pretty terrible RPG most of the time. Levelling's taken out of your hands, the environments are fiercely repetitive, and your sole choices amount to whether to use a melee attack or magic when laying into the next monster. Sure, the colour-coded adventurers, each with their own powers, bring a surprising tactical depth to your decision at times, but you're hardly looking at Nintendo's answer to Dark Souls, or even HeroQuest.
The more you play, though, the more you'll start to realise that the RPG isn't actually the main event. Rather, each tiny sliver of the RPG you're given is your reward for successfully playing the true StreetPass Quest - and that turns out to be a game about carrying your 3DS around wherever you go, changing your walking habits so that even the shortest stroll takes you past as many shopping malls and densely populated areas as possible, and maximising every single chance you can get for that little green light on your 3DS - Gatsby would understand - to start glowing. It's like fishing, really, or dowsing. Or Pokémon.
It's also a reminder, should you need one, that StreetPass is probably the most Nintendoish element of the 3DS, a device which, with its gimmicky lenticular screen and horrible battery life, isn't exactly drowning in the kind of Gunpei Yokoi-style leftfield thinking that brought us the Gameboy or the original DS. The console's a bit of a cludge, perhaps, but at least its sharing aspects are brilliant. StreetPass enlivens titles like Mario and Street Fighter with regular tiny bursts of new content, and, even outside of other games, it seems wonderfully in line with its creator's playful ethos. Everyone's a generous stranger in the world of StreetPass, and everywhere you go is a place that something weird and sweet and modestly rewarding could happen. It's nice to have a game that is always playing by itself in the background. It's nice to have a game that makes you wait for things - a rarity in the current landscape.
So, slight as it is, StreetPass Quest is my game of 2011. Looking back, it's also been a game about 2011: an accidental diary of the places I've been to and the people I've met there, written in all the faces that are lined up in Mii Plaza. So there are the cluster of ludic geniuses I met at the Develop Conference in Summer, there are the bearded programmers from that studio visit in Autumn, and over there is fellow Eurogamer contributor Will Porter, collected during a drink we had in Brighton a few weeks' back. (Not sure the Kirby beret really suits you, Will.)
If you love games, you'll already know that they're more than the mere distraction they're often made out to be. At their best - when you're gathering heroes, fighting ghosts and collecting hats, let's say - they can occasionally break through the technology barrier completely and become a genuine companion.
For PC owners, recording game footage is a piece of cake. You buy FRAPS or check out a free alternative (like the intriguing MSI Afterburner) and a few mouse clicks later you're on your way. But what are the cheapest options for console enthusiasts looking to capture their gameplay on a budget?
Digital Foundry's entry-level recommendation is the Blackmagic Intensity Pro, readily available for around £130-£150. There are alternatives of course, which we'll cover later, and the Blackmagic tech has a series of limitations that could put some people off, but for the average gamer simply looking to record his own gameplay, upload to YouTube or archive off for future reference, the Intensity Pro will do just fine - as long as it's configured correctly.
Taking the form of a PCI Express x1 expansion card, the Intensity Pro is compatible with PCs and desktop Macs, allowing users to record footage from analogue component or HDMI. The range of supported resolutions is limited, but for the purposes of recording game video from PS3 and 360, 720p is really all you need.
Its other major drawback is that you cannot acquire HDMI video from a PlayStation 3 or any other HD source that utilises the HDCP content protection system. This limitation is in effect for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while the utilisation of HDCP encryption on PS3 gameplay is pointless and baffling (Xbox 360 doesn't use it at all), capture card manufacturers are not keen on their equipment being used to create digitally perfect copies of content such as Blu-ray movies or TV transmissions. Secondly, Intensity Pro wasn't really designed for games consoles. It's primarily made for use with HD cameras, none of which have HDCP encryption active at all.
The solution here is obvious: capture Xbox 360 from HDMI and use good old analogue component for PlayStation 3. Yes, there is a quality difference between HDMI and analogue component and personally we wouldn't use it for our Face-Off coverage, but the differences are not extreme and if your aim isn't reference quality but simply to create good-looking video, component is certainly good enough. To illustrate the quality difference such as it is, in the shots below we've used the Intensity Pro to capture the same image using both component and HDMI connections.
The component signal's colour balance is a little off and if you look really closely you may notice that the definition is not quite so pin-sharp, but the fact is that overall quality of both signals isn't a million miles apart: you're feeding the card 720p and that's what it's giving you in your captured video.
So does utilising HDMI give a true 100 per cent digitally lossless image? When running from an HD camcorder, it can. In fact, the Intensity was originally designed so film-makers could record direct from the camera, bypassing the lossy compression systems like AVC-HD used to store footage on memory cards or hard disk. Indeed, the first release of the Intensity didn't work with games consoles at all, the functionality only being added in a later firmware update.
Why? The explanation is simple: cameras use a different digital signal format compared to the 24-bit RGB output of the consoles. It's a lower-quality colour-space, and the solution Intensity uses (in common with all entry-level HD capture cards) involves downscaling RGB to this so-called YPrPb 4:2:2 or YUY2 format, downsampling the chroma resolution, meaning that bright primary colours like red and blue can display noticeable artifacting.
A 30 per cent downsample in chroma resolution may sound rather harsh but the fact is that if your end-game is to encode your video to WMV, h.264 or encode to YouTube, the downgrade is insignificant compared to what happens next as the footage is compressed into its final form - indeed, chroma is downsampled again to an even less precise format. HDMI is still the best input to use overall on this card - it's just important to bear in mind that digital capture doesn't necessarily mean a completely lossless transfer - and the high-end purists looking to preserve video output in its entirety probably won't be looking at sub-£200 capture cards anyway and will be pursuing a solution capable of native 24-bit RGB support.
So with the bad news out of the way, let's concentrate on the good. First up, the Intensity has excellent video passthrough capabilities. This means you can monitor your gameplay on your PC screen but also attach an HDTV to the card and continue gaming as normal. The passthrough is flexible enough that you can capture from the component input but have your main gameplay display attached by HDMI - or vice versa. Very useful.
Intensity is also supplied with DirectShow drivers, meaning that it usually interfaces fairly easily with any type of PC capture or live-streaming program. For recording gameplay, we would recommend AmaRecTV for the job, because the supplied Media Express tools you get out of the box are limited.
The main challenge in capturing HD footage is the sheer size of the files you'll be acquiring. Uncompressed HD video from Intensity offers a good quality level, but 720p60 weighs in at around 110MB/s or thereabouts - that's beyond the sustained writing capabilities of most hard drives which slow down as you fill them. Blackmagic's only alternative is to compress with MJPEG, literally a motion version of the compression tech used for shrinking down pictures. This introduces a lot of compression artifacts and kills fine detail, so while it'll allow you to capture onto "normal" hard drives with ease and is functional enough, too much quality is lost for our liking and footage looks oddly washed out too.
The basic rule of thumb with video destined for YouTube or other streaming media is that the cleaner the source you supply, the better the quality of the final presentation. Giving their encoders video that has already been compromised by macroblocking and other artifacts is not a particularly good idea - it'll just make them even worse in the final presentation.
By opting for a third-party solution like AmaRecTV you can bin the lacklustre MJPEG codec and instead opt for lossless and less aggressive lossy compressors: top candidates here are the freeware UT Codec Suite and the $10 AMV Codec, which offers both lossless and great quality lossy compression. File sizes remain large, but at the very least a standard hard drive can cope with the throughput without dropping frames during capture.
The other plus point of these alternative codecs is that they are better optimised for multi-core systems and are relatively light on CPU resources compared to MJPEG. Just about any dual-core CPU should be able to cope with 720p60 compression.
Another advantage AmaRecTV offers is that you can record at 30FPS even from a 720p60 source. Bearing in mind that YouTube and most video streaming services only support 30FPS anyway, and indeed that most games operate at 30FPS, this is a useful way to save space and make captured files easier to work with.
Both the supplied Media Express software and AmaRecTV produce AVI files that you can then edit in your package of choice. We'd recommend exporting your final edits using one of the lossless codecs we've recommended to maintain the quality level of the original capture all the way through to your final video. If you're transmitting to YouTube at this point, we'd recommend encoding into h.264 using a program such as Handbrake or StaxRip. Use a "RF" or "CRF" profile (18-20 for the quality level should provide an excellent picture). These profiles allocate bandwidth according to the complexity of the image, so macroblocking will be minimal - the encoder ensures that each frame is compressed to the same quality level.
While we recommend the Intensity Pro PCI Express upgrade, other versions of the same technology are available. The Intensity Extreme appears to be exactly the same product in an external enclosure using a Thunderbolt interface for Mac. More intriguing is the USB 3.0 Intensity Shuttle, which appears to offer more features - such as support for 480p, which is potentially of use to gamers for Wii and legacy console capture. 1080p60 recording - the preserve of high-end cards - was also initially mooted in advertising, but never worked and is now excised from Blackmagic's promo materials.
The issue we have with USB 3.0 is that bandwidth spec is equivalent to 4x PCI Express, but many USB 3.0 implementations only support one lane's worth of throughput, resulting in the Shuttle not working on many USB 3.0 setups. This isn't the fault of the product but of the implementation of what should be a "standard" interface. We've also seen some cases of the PC DirectShow interface not working properly with the Shuttle, meaning you may be stuck with the Media Express software that comes with the unit - a tool we can't in all honesty recommend.
Other enthusiasts aren't so keen on the Intensity and instead favour the Avermedia AverTV HD DVR upgrade card (specifically, the C027 model). In combination with a specific driver revision, HDCP-encrypted video can be captured by using a tool like AmaRecTV, while running the supplied "media centre" software (which is awful by the way) in the background. Bizarrely, this results in decrypted video which DirectShow can then access. The Avermedia card also supports 480p component capture which had no problem getting to work, in theory making it a superior choice to the Intensity Pro for gamers looking for an all-encompassing solution.
We found it to be an adequate performer and the HDCP bypass trick with the specified driver revision certainly works for recording PS3 gameplay. However, the chipset this card uses has a bug that sees HDMI colour balance compromised to a certain extent, and there is no video passthrough, though AmaRecTV's excellent real-time preview window compensates this to some degree with just a 50ms latency. The real problem is one of availability, as the card no longer seems to be widely available in the UK.
Both Avermedia and Blackmagic's DirectShow interfaces are also helpful for a growing offshoot of capture capabilities: live-streaming. As far as your PC is concerned, a capture card is just another camera source, meaning that you can use the technology to beam your direct feed gameplay across the world. The key issue here is the state of your upstream connection, and the quality of the link to the server you choose to stream from.
The typical ADSL connection only supports around 800kbps to 1mbps of bandwidth, which we wouldn't recommend for trying to stream live gameplay at 720p. On the other side of the equation, those with meatier upload capabilities will probably be stymied by bandwidth throttling server-side. During our experiments, we typically found it hard to stream above 2mbps, even with a 100mbps fibre-optic connection.
XSplit is the software of choice for live-streaming, with Twitch.TV and the remarkably named Own3d.TV proving to be very popular for game-streaming. While the default settings will go some way to getting up and running, for those with powerful connections, here are our preferred settings. Adjusting resolution to 480p and maxing out bandwidth to 1mbps would be preferable for ADSL - XSplit can resize the video for you so you can leave the capture hardware running at 720p.
The settings below, in concert with this preset (put this into XSplit's ffpresets folder) should be good for 720p30 live encoding, and even utilises the periodic intra refresh technologies used by Gaikai and OnLive for improved picture quality on restricted bandwidth.
In the past, HD capture was an expensive proposition - and for high-end applications along the lines that Digital Foundry itself specialises in, it still is - but the emergence of cards like the Intensity Pro has made high-def recording much more of a commodity. Prices have been driven down, with enthusiasts ready to fill the gap left by lacklustre "in the box" tools with cut-price or even free alternatives that in many cases provide superior quality. For gamers looking to share content - be it via screenshots or videos - there's never been a better time to get capturing.
Maybe I'm being wilfully perverse. It wouldn't be the first time. If the game of the week were determined by buzz or importance or sheer weight of numbers - of players, of man-years of effort, of many millions of dollars in budget, of hours of queuing for a precious spot on a live server - then this week it would unquestionably belong to Star Wars: The Old Republic.
BioWare's behemoth isn't just (very likely) the most expensive game ever made, it's the most challenging online game launch ever - and that from a developer with limited experience in the field. Hats off to the studio and its partners, then, because this titanic construction has slipped from the dockyard into the waters with grace and ease. Those queues and a certain bureaucratic fussiness about access are really the only things to complain about.
It's a totally solid, smooth-running and full-featured game, an unprecedented achievement in online world launches. By comparison, its inspiration and rival World of Warcraft stumbled badly at birth, and that game's North American and European release dates were months apart. But that was before it had redefined everyone's expectations of the demand for a new MMO. Of course, it went on to redefine our expectations of just about everything else to do with the genre as well. That's one of many reasons why it will take a while to review The Old Republic, and why I don't want to pre-empt that judgement here.
As a work of game art and design, and as a new standard-bearer for a genre that has been all but crushed under WOW's heel, The Old Republic has still got a lot to prove. It will continue to long after I manage to stick a score out of ten on it. But as a work of engineering, online logistics and commercial enterprise, it's off to a terrific start and has erased at least one of the black marks against MMOs' name. Congratulations to all involved.
Conversely, our actual game of the week is one that, thanks to a friendly developer, we managed to review several weeks before its release.
In a tough market, an interesting new avenue for revenue for a small indie developer lies in becoming a remaster specialist. That's the route taken by Yorkshire's Just Add Water with this superlative version of an obscure modern classic.
It doesn't have the same cachet as developing your own original game, of course, but as work-for-hire jobs go, it probably beats churning out a licensed game in six months to a spec you don't like and a quality you're not happy with. You also get the privilege of taking truly great work apart to see what makes it tick, before carefully polishing and greasing it all and putting it back together.
I imagine you experience the same satisfaction as a museum archaeologist, an antique furniture restorer, or a hobbyist rebuilding a classic car: pride in preservation, celebration and curation. The great thing is that, in the download age, you're also making something that might have become obscure or hard to find easily available to all. Whilst I see Martin's point that a remaster isn't the same thing as a preserved original - you only need to look at George Lucas' revisionism of the early Star Wars films to see the danger there - I also agree with Dan that making old games into viable commercial products is vital for the health of the medium.
Sensitive porting and HD remastering of past masters is not glamorous work, but it's noble work. So let's salute the a roll call of 2011 heroes that probably won't be recognised anywhere else: Just Add Water; Bluepoint Games (Ico & Shaodw of the Colossus Collection, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection); Ready at Dawn (reworking their own games in God of War Collection Volume 2); Grezzo (Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D); Christian Whitehead (not the mutant offspring of Donlan and Dan, but the fan who showed Sega how to do Sonic CD); Iron Galaxy (Street Fighter 3: Third Strike); the guy at Treasure who made the XBLA version of Guardian Heroes all on his lonesome (sorry, Martin knows his name and he's left the office to buy Christmas whisky now). There are many more, but these are the people who went the extra mile in their efforts.
Now that they've had their moment, let's turn the spotlight back where they'd want it - on the original game in question. Stranger's Wrath is an extraordinary combination of Halo's organically balanced firefights with a politically conscious Western on a slapstick, cartoon alien world. Keeping up? EA couldn't, and the game disappeared on its original Xbox release, so it's great to have it back on PS3.
"It's an example of what happens when a clever developer explores the cracks between genres and when established franchises are allowed to drift into bizarre new territory," wrote Christian in our Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD review. "Best of all, it shows you the kind of things that video games can do when their narratives are powered by characters rather than set-pieces.
"Without Stranger, there would be no plot. He is the plot, really, and while it's unfair to spoil any of the astonishing surprises that lurk in wait for newcomers, it's safe to say that this is an uncommonly rich adventure, revealing subtext and emotion as elegantly and effortlessly as it unleashes its brutal twists and its devastating reversals. It has both a theme and a message - it's a game that's unashamedly about something. And although it toys with standard beats like betrayal and redemption, the redemption is delivered with real moral force for once, while the betrayal arrives from an angle you'd never have suspected."
If you don't know what your Christmas game is yet - if you're not tempted by The Old Republic's busy servers or plotting your second hundred hours in Skyrim or eyeing a wrapped-up Skyward Sword under the tree - consider making it this one. It's a time for parables, after all, and the moral of this story is that the story, for once, has a moral.
But whatever you choose to play - whether you choose to play at all - have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. See you on the other side.
A US superior court judge has denied EA's request to throw out Activision's $400 million contract-interference suit relating to the departure of Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella last year.
Judge Elihu Berle ruled that Activision had offered sufficient evidence to uphold its claim and ordered the case move on to trial, which is scheduled to begin on 7th May 2012. A related summary judgment motion put forth by West and Zampella was also denied.
Activision is alleging that West and Zampella breached their contracts and duty of loyalty to the publisher by conduct that was "insubordinate and otherwise improper", adding that pair's actions were caused, at least in part, by EA's "unlawful tampering".
West and Zampella, who have since set up Respawn Entertainment and secured a publishing deal with EA, filed their own suit against Activision in March 2010, shortly after they were sacked by the publisher, claiming wrongful termination and missing royalties. That case is also set to go to trial some time in 2012.
Sony has confirmed official RRPs for both the first wave of Vita games and the system's proprietary memory cards.
As detailed on the EU PlayStation Blog, the following first party launch titles are priced as follows:
As previously reported, you'll need one of Sony's proprietary memory cards to play most of those titles. Here's how much those will cost you:
These prices tally with what online retailer Play announced earlier this week.
In addition, Sony has also priced various official accessories available from launch:
It also confirmed that every Vita will come bundled with six augmented reality cards and a voucher to download three AR games - called Table Football, Cliff Diving and Fireworks - for free.
Meanwhile, the US PlayStation Blog has published a full list of titles that will be available in North America on launch day. This may not tally exactly with Europe, but for what it's worth:
In addition to that lot, the following are marked as "launch window" titles:
UPDATE 2: Breathe easy, seems it was all a mix up. GameSpot just issued the following statement:
"The Last Guardian has not been cancelled by Sony as we incorrectly stated in an automated call to reservation customers.
"Because the game did not have a specific release date, GameStop made the decision to remove the game from our system. The Last Guardian will be reinstated for pre-order when a firm launch date is known."
UPDATE 1: Sony communications chief Patrick Seybold has told Kotaku that GameStop's assertion that The Last Guardian has been canceled "is not true".
ORIGINAL STORY: US games retailer GameStop has pulled M.I.A. PlayStation 3 exclusive The Last Guardian from its release schedule and informed customers who've placed a pre-order that the game has been canceled.
According to a Joystiq report, a number of customers have received an automated phone message from the store stating that "we've been notified by the vendor that The Last Guardian has been canceled" and offering a refund.
There is currently no listing for the title on GameStop's website, though both Amazon and BestBuy still offer the game for pre-order.
We've contacted both Sony and GameStop to find out exactly what's going on here and will update when we hear back.
Last month Eurogamer learned that creator Fumito Ueda had left developer Team Ico and was reportedly completing the game on a freelance basis. Soon after, news broke that executive producer Yoshifusa Hayama had also left the company.
Team Ico's follow-up to Shadow of the Colossus was first announced back in 2009, though precious little new information regarding the title has emerged since.