Playing by ear: A very non rigorous comparison of Media Players

Audio woes

Some time ago, I decided to make an investment in a reasonably good audio system. I tried to attack the subject as most of us do when we want  to buy a TV or a computer. As we don’t really understand it, we read some pages on the web with comparisons and opinions and follow those. Get in, read something, find the two or three good names and get out fast.

In the case of audio equipment, this technique proved useless. It is impossible to read about audio, the information is built like a black hole. You just dig in deeper, deeper and deeper with no chance of understanding what these crazy “experts” are talking about. It is probably the most esoteric and unapproachable technical subject on the Internet.

These things are scary…

Long story short, I was lucky enough to find a friend who helped me choose and I ended up with a fantastic sounding piece of kit that covered my needs and delivered an audio that I percieved as very good. I now have a good amp, a blue ray/DVD/CD player, a fantastic DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter), a very nice vinyl player and the jewel of the crown, two custom made speakers built for me by a music guru.

Feed the machine

So I was all set, the only thing remaining was to feed this system some audio recordings. But it’s not so easy, because digital audio is a bitch.

A very simplified scheme of a digital audio chain. There is math beyond this drawing, approach carefully.

First of all, you have the file formats. Streaming audio is normally crap, MP3 is also crap in most configurations but if the recording is good enough, the result can sometimes be also “good enough”. As a general rule, if you have good listening equipment, you need to use FLAC or AAC.

Second, good quality will be most noticeable with certain types of music. If your fancy is dubstep and electronica, then don’t bother. Most of dubstep is heavily distorted on purpose so having a discussion about audio quality is pointless. Audio quality is percieved well with jazz and with anything with guitars or drums.

Harlem shakers not caring about digital audio format

And third, a digital audio chain goes through lots and lots of pieces of software, filters, samplers and buffers that do nasty things to it before the pure audio equipment even gets to touch it.

The easiest, cheapest way to improve audio quality in your digital audio reproduction system is very simple and it applies to everyone. Just use good audio playing software! Media player software is not all the same. Many come with presets, others do more stuff to the audio, some use a famously crappy Windows audio engine and others use custom drivers.

And that is what this article is about (finally!). I have tried to decide what free audio/media player software performs best out of the box in a windows environment. And I have done it in a semirigorous way, that is… not rigorously at all.

Testing tastes… or is it tasting tests?

I have installed a list of audio sources and compared audio output using a good pair of good headphones. In order to spread the comparison, I have compared different music pieces with different characteristics to see if differences hold coherent between styles (they actually don’t).

This is exclusively a comparison of analog output. Comparing digital outputs is stupid because if you can get a bitperfect stream, then there will be nothing to compare. Getting bitperfect audio out of a Windows machine is more tricky than you think but I will let you figure that one out on your own.

The headphones are these, with the noise cancelling turned off. Volume is pushed far up and I used a series of three listenings of each song per player while writing down impressions on them. They are very middle of the road, a lot of people have better stuff so they should absolutely be using good software!

These are the programs I have compared, all under Windows 7 64 bits:

- Itunes for applelites and lazy iphone owners. It is beyond me why anyone would use this software now that you can get iOS updates without syncing. The scraper is bad, the interface is bad, it runs into problems when the library is too big and it is messy with folders and files. Also, “Genius” is a joke.

- Foobar2000 for snobbish audiophiles. A horrible interface with almost no options forces you to play music in this just as if you were playing vynil. It has no real library management features, it’s just a loooooonnnngggg playlist. No scraping, album covers or any fancies for this one.

Yes, it’s this ugly

- MediaMonkey is the all in one solution monster app for huge libraries. It plays video, lots of formats, scrapes reasonably well, allows lots of fancy tagging and networking tricks. For example, it includes a DLNA server to stream locally your content to other devices. Fancy and big. There is a deluxe paid for version that does even more fancy stuff with networks, but they both sound the same.

- MediaGo by Sony is a better version of Itunes in that is is simpler, reads FLAC and scrapes albums better. But it is still quite basic an much uglier than other Sony media related interfaces, like the ones found in phones or Playstation products. Clearly the PC version is an afterthought for Sony and yet, it’s still better than iTunes.

- XBMC is a shitty audio scrapper but a fantastic video player. Many media center solutions use either XBMC or it’s cousin, Plex. It is not good for a desktop or keyboard and mouse, but it is fantastic for a HTPC and a remote. If you want to browse through your media library from a couch, there is nothing better than XBMC or Plex. And there is a very strong case for connecting your HTPC and TV to your fancier audio system in order to have good audio when watching films too…

- VLC is the swiss knife of video and audio players, it plays every format in the planet. It is best used when associated with your file format tag, as it loads extremely fast and you are sure it will play whatever you throw at it.

- Google Music Play stores in the cloud 20000 songs for free and streams them to you. I don’t like the interface too much but it’s extremely robust. File upload is very slow but it works reasonably well.

- Spotify (local files) is the world’s biggest streaming solution and the client can play local files as well. The library is quite impressive but I find it very annoying to have to log in and as any modern “ecosystem”, it will shout at the world each and every time you listen to something, look at something and blink at something. Very socially advanced and extremely annoying.

I chose not to include Songbird, Winamp or the Linux bunch like Banshee or Clementine because these ones seemed to me like they covered the most obvious players for every type of person.

The songs I used for comparisons are the following:

- For Live Latin Jazz (MP3 HQ VBR), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Live Latin Jazz (FLAC), “Se me olvido que te olvide” – Bebo & el Cigala

- For Guitar rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Lonely Boy” – The Black Keys

- For Indie rock (MP3 320 kbps), “Teenage Icon” – The Vaccines

- For Indie (MP3 320 kbps), “Fake Empire” – The National

- For Classic Drums (MP3 320 kbps), “Young Americans” – David Bowie

- For Funk (FLAC), “The Healer” – Erykah Badu

- For Awesomeness (FLAC), “Crystalline” – Bjork

She f***ing rules

Some surprising results, others not so much

Ok, on to the results! I am not going to put a spreadsheet or graphs as I think that they’d be of very limited value. I am merely going to digest my impressions with some strong ideas.

Formats first, the difference between FLAC and MP3 is clear and noticeable, specially if the MP3 is variable bitrate. A live recording of very smooth jazz is all about lingering vibration in the air as the music blends into silence.You can hear the MP3 going down into white silence and a lot of nuance is lost.

A true audiophile would hear the smoke…

Second, music style, the less noisy and overlapped the music is, the biggest the difference. Hard metal and distorted electronica are harder to separate because many instruments cover each other.

Concerning MP3 playing, there seem to be two big groups of players, those that use their own audio rendering engine and those that use the generic Windows one. I will talk about these ones first.

- In all the cases where the player was using the Windows engine, the result was always worse and very similar between players. Itunes, MediaMonkey, Spotify and MediaGo all seem to use the same algorythms. They all give mushy, faded results. The bass is muffled, sharps are way less clear and the music is not at all vibrant. There was one song that broke this rule in one specific player. “Lonely Boy” played in iTunes is somehow pumped up by the player to extreme levels of trebble and bass. So much so that it gets to levels where the clarity is lost and distorsion appears. So yes, the Black Keys are not mushy when played in Itunes, but the actual audio is not better, just noisier and ugly.

She hates iTunes too…

Of the remaining four players, they are all interesting in their own ways.

- The biggest surprise for me was without a doubt Google Music Play. The audio was sharp, warm and very well tuned. It was absolutely up to par with non streaming solutions. I loved the bass and the sense of space that you could percieve in the jazz recording.

- VLC is fantastic in the MP3, I found it less defined than Foobar2000 or Google Music Play but it boiled down to very tiny and probably subjective differences. I am sure that a different set of MP3 songs would have put VLC up to Foobar or Google’s level. On the other hand, FLAC was rather muffled and it was hard to see a difference between MP3 and FLAC.

- XBMC was also very good with MP3, almost the same as VLC. In the case of FLAC, XBMC went too far into trebble and unbalanced levels.

- Foobar2000 was in my opinion, the overall best audio quality. FLAC and MP3 were both fantastic. It is now my reference player whenever I want to listen to good music with either a good set of speaker or headphones. Pity that the interface is so ugly and simplified.

The good news is that there is a very good way to get good quality of audio for every type of user. If you want to stream your audio, use Google Play. If you want a HTPC style player, use XBMC (or Plex). If you simply want to double click in a MP3 file and listen to it, you can happily live with VLC associated with your MP3 file format tag.

But if you want to listen to digital audio the “audiophile way”, that is sitting down to listen to music, get Foobar2000. It’s awesome.

So there you have it, some advice based on purely subjective evidence… but this time it’s not about a game!

Crusader Kings 2: Finally, a step forward

Founding fathers

4x strategy (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) has a problem. None of the games seem to be able to tackle a basic design flaw that was already present in the original Civilization, the “snowball effect”.

In a normal 4x game you start in a weak position. Your first objective is to conquer any of your neighbours in order to become bigger and more badass. If the game is good, these are always scary times, you are small and a mistake will cost you dearly. Good strategies, bold moves and some luck is required. Fun!

However, as games are made to be won, you will inevitably expand and after roughly 3-5 hours you’ll have won some territories. You’ll have more money, more armies and basically be more robust. You’ll be for example 5 territories or cities strong and your 4 neighbours are size 3.

And here comes the problem: after 3-5 hours, you have already won the game. You have become too big to be stopped. You’ll be able to cope with those size 3 neighbours, double your size again and then be 10 territories strong with maybe one or two mighty empires of 15 ahead of you. You turn your back to them and easily wipe the other (by now) small size 3-7 guys. By the time you attack a big empire, you are twice as big as them and technology or geography do not matter, you are too big for them.  Since  the moment you overcame those one or two first neighbours and grew to size 3, the rest of the 30-100 hours ahead of you is just wiping out enemies weaker than you.  Your victory is inevitable,  congratulations, you have snowballed the game.

Should you feel proud of your strategy skill? Hardly, these games are all about growth and they include no mechanism to slow it or even reverse it, so you very rarely lose territories, face an alliance of AI neighbours or have to stop an invasion of green slimy hordes of flying worms. The last phases of any Civ-like game have always been brain dead boring, as you still have to push through yet another 100 turns in order to end the game.  You may have fun watching a battle between the AI’s last 2000 soldiers and your 16000, but the depressing thing is that you do not even have to properly move them. They’ll win the battle by default as they are 8 to 1. In fact you are more sympathetic to the enemy’s armies, as they heroically let themselves be decimated in one last stand.

I have played this arc over and over, complained about it and wondered if there was a way to elegantly reinvent 4x gaming. The key word here is “elegantly”. There have been many proposals to solve this, but they all failed. Many use special victory conditions, like Shogun 2 or Colonization, some use scripted events, like Rome:TW and others simply make the game impossibly complex so that you cannot play it well, like Victoria 2.

Enter the King

Here comes CK2, yet another 4x strategy game from Paradox. They are famously regarded as the designers of the most obscure and overly complex games in the current mainstream. Games like Victoria or even worse, Victoria 2, are simply layers and layers of monstrously detailed economic information that simply cannot be coped with and today, any Paradox game is to be approached with caution.

CK2′s marketing caught my attention more than a year ago because they seemed to be fed up with the snowball effect and they promised to have found the much coveted elegant solution. Instead of playing as a country, civilization or leader, you’d play as a dynasty.

It seems trivial but it is not because it allows for the designers to introduce multiple mechanisms that will slow down and even reverse your growth curve. It is fascinating to look at CK2′s design in this way, because it all fits.

In CK2 you start a as nobleman holding one or many titles to his name. You get to choose from any of the many counts, barons, dukes or kings in 1066 Europe. Each of these characters has a set of skills and controls a bigger or smaller piece of land. You will control him/her until he dies, when you will pass to control his/her heir. And so on and so forth until the game ends. There are three ending conditions, you lose when you lose all your titles and thus do not control any more territories, you lose if your last dynasty member dies without a heir and otherwise, the game ends in 1450 when you count your score. Your score is formed by the prestige points accumulated by all the members of your dynasty. So again, simple enough.

Each starting position is completely different. You might start in the middle of Christian Europe and be a small count who is vassal to a duke who in turn is vassal to a king or emperor or you might be surrounded by territories full of infidels or you could be neighbour to the most annoying piece of AI ever created, the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In any of these situations, your first order of business is to understand what is around you, but most importantly WHO is around you. Who is allied with who, who is father to who, who is going to inherit what, who likes you and who does not.

That is because the whole game is about people. As an example, I will describe the starting position of a single character, the extremely humble Count of Hainaut. This is when things get interesting.

The name is Flanders, Ned Flanders

This guy is 22 years old and unmarried so of course, no children. He controls a single territory in what is now the belgian/french frontier but he belongs to the Holy Roman Empire, the sum of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, half of Italy and much more. He is vassal to a Duke in today’s Dusseldorf that hates your guts because you are dutch and he, as the rest of the empire, are german. To the north of you lives your small brother who controls what is today’s Holland. All this is very nice and dandy, but as it turns out, you have a border to your west with none other than the huge kingdom of France. And in the kingdom of France, controlling what is today’s Dunkirk and Oostende, is the Duchy of Flanders with 5 territories. And the Duke of Flanders happens to be your father.

Hmmm, that means that when your father dies, his titles will pass on to the dynasty, meaning you (yay!). But as he has a Gravelkind succession system, the titles will split between the direct heirs (booo!).

When your father dies, you’ll become a french duke, the french king will hate your guts because you are dutch and not french and Hainaut will pass to be french (but only until you die, your heir will not retain Hainaut and it will go back to the Emperor). As a side note, of the 4 titles your father has, three will go to you and one will go to your ugly, stupid little maggot of a brother, who is sitting on his Holland county grinning because he’s going to take what is rightfully yours without doing anything.

Embrace the dark side, young padawan!

With this starting position, you have many different strategies. The most obvious one is to kill your father, thus speeding up the process of your inheritance. The second obvious one is to kill your brother. This would allow you to inherit the full Duchy of Flanders. However, the same is true for him. If he kills you somehow, he gets it all.

So you need to decide if you are going to actively try to kill your brother or not. If no, then you can protect yourself from any plots by ordering your spymaster to uncover plots in your county, that will make it hard for him to kill you. If you do decide that you want to rid the world of such vermin, you’ll  need  a lot of money and to do it fast before he is able to have a son/daughter. Maybe it’ll be easier to kill his wife instead of him?

You get the idea of how far this kind of reasoning can go, but the elegance of CK2′s design is that it affects your approach to the whole strategy and not only the diplomacy. For example, any kind of long term investment in Hainaut will be lost in around 40 years time when you die, so maybe it is not the thing to get into right now. Also, any advances in the relationships with your german neighbours are completely useless as you are to become french soon. You need to marry if possible with a girl from a good french family that will give you a solid alliance when you become Duke. You also need to start thinking about getting clever courtiers to help you in the council and be good teachers for your future sons. Those sons will be the ones you control when your guy dies, so you need a woman that can give you those kids. So not too young or too old then. Say, a 18 year old daughter of a count, or ideally a Duke, from France.

Magic glue.

This is more or less an example of what you are looking at when you start the game as the Count of Hainaut. And this guy is a random choice, every count/duke/king has his/her own story to develop that can be as interesting or more that the story of the Duchy of Flanders. The starting positions are complex and interesting because everything is interwoven in cool and deep ways.

So once you have taken a look around you and taken the first basic decisions, you can unpause the game, and immediately, your story starts to become unique. All your plans will be altered by marriages, unexpected deaths, the Pope, the Emperor, the King,  Holy war, lots of betrayals and many events that alter your course through this mess that is feudal Europe. You have chances of having gay sons, becoming converted to the Orthodox faith, being called on a Crusade, your mother killing your father only so that you inherit and one month later your wife kills you so that it is your son who inherits immediately…

It sounds chaotic and hilarious, but in fact it is simply brilliant: what you are seeing at work is the answer to the snowball problem. The brilliance of this game is using nobility titles to tie the grand strategy of a classic 4x game to the scale of a single person.

CK2 is a classic design that merges two types of gameplay, much in the tradition of XCOM or Rome:TW. In this case, instead of merging a grand strategy game with a tactical combat game, Paradox has merged the Sims with Civilization. And Nobility titles are the magic glue that tie both together.

Once you have the idea of the titles in your design, it is easy to introduce many different brakes to the growth curve that are fun and coherent. They can be events that happen to your characters (the Sims game), like for example if your guy decides that he can afford to take liberties with the wife of your financial advisor, she gets pregnant, the husband gets angry because even though he’s gay, he’s also proud. So he kills your character, forcing you all of a sudden to go on playing as the brother that you were planning to kill five minutes before. And of course, what seems as a nice relaxing evening with this nice lady ends up delaying your dynasty’s expansion plans for more than 20 years. The system prevented you from growing and instead of getting frustrated, you’ll be telling the story to your friends.

Or these events could be things that happen to your country instead (the Civ game), like your king getting into a war that he cannot win and you seeing that not only your king is getting resources from your territories to fight this lost hopeless war, but that you are going to lose everything. Unless you declare independence, of course. If you time it right, it might actually work in your favour, so what you could do is raise your army so that the king does not have the chance to get your men for his army, thus increasing his chances of losing…

The magic glue works, it all fits nicely.

Complexity version 2.0

Paradox games are complex and so is CK2, but the good news is that it is complex in the right places. For starters, technology, military and finance have been extremely simplified if you compare it to Europa Universalis or Victoria.

The interface is a scary beast at first, but it has a very simple rule that will make it very easy to use effectively: letting the mouse cursor hover over any piece of information will give you much more information. Also, although there are many menus and screens in reality the whole game is played by dealing with people, so you only need to really understand one screen in the game: the screen that describes each character. From there, you’ll do everything important in the game.

CK2 is a complex game with a complex interface and a lot of information to deal with but it is a kind simplified complexity, where you can move through lots and lots of menus in an intuitive way. The only game that I can possibly compare to CK2 is Football Manager and CK2′s interface is way easier and more intuitive than FM.

The other stuff.

Paradox has spent money in CK2 and it shows, but they are still Paradox. They have never been amazing at graphics and CK2 is no different. In comparison, Shogun’s 3D map is much more attractive and beautiful and is also faster than CK2′s. I’d say that for a strategy game, CK2′s maps and graphics are adequate.

The music is nothing to write home about, it is also adequate and there is enough of it that you will not get tired of it too fast. however, this is a game where you’ll spend many, many hours playing, so rest assured you’ll end turning it off.

The biggest complain I have with the game is the multiplayer. Labchimp and me have been unable to setup a game and I can assure you that the process is as obscure as it can be. We have not given up yet, but it has been frustrating and bad.

A minor gripe that I have is the launch process: the game seems to perform a first time install every time I launch it, then goes into a completely useless splash screen with only a single button that you have to press and then finally starts the incredibly long loading time typical of Paradox games.

And the last complaint I have is about the difficulty level, the game plays fairly ok in normal but when you want to increase it the two higher levels are simply AI cheats with military and economic bonuses. It is really a pity, because the standard AI is pretty good in all that involves diplomacy but it is very bad in military matters.

Get to the point!

It has been a long review, I know. And the point is this: CK2 is very, very good. And it is an important game because it moves the genre forward. It is able to brake the growth curve of 4x games in an elegant and enriching way that makes the game better. Previous attempts to do the same were frustrating and painful, specially in Victoria’s case where it was just so complex that you HAD to play badly. In CK2, not growing and thus losing is actually a lot of fun.

If you like 4x strategy, you simply cannot not play this game, it is up there with the best of the best.

The end of Megaupload?

 

Today one of the biggest file sharing site was shut down by the feds today. The founder and several company executives were also charged for violating piracy laws. The accusation that started the criminal case was unsealed a day before globally used sites like Wikipedia, Reddit and Craigslist blacked out to show their support for their opposition against SOPA and Megaupload are accused of costing copyright holders over $500million (£322 million) in lost revenue from pierated films and other content.

The interesting fact about this site was  that it was only a few weeks ago when Megaupload posted their infamous music video featuring celebrities such as Kanye West, Alicia Keys, P.Diddy and even Snoop Dogg, who all endorsed their site! And these are people who are ‘allegedly’ affected by file sharing sites such as Megaupload.

Kardashian in the Music video. Been busy with tape finding lately?

Hours before the site was taken down megaupload posted a statement out saying how “grotesquely overblown.” the accusations were against the company.

The main people who will be affected are those legitimate customers, (hey, not every file sharing site is used for pierating!) those people who have important family photos/videos, work related documents and other important files will be heavily affected as they find out that the site refuses to load for them anymore. As well as court fees if any, this will cost Megaupload a lot of money in lost revenue.

No doubt that supporters of SOPA and the likes will use this to their advantage in future nonsense videos. We’ll be  keeping an eye out for any more development on this matter.

So what do you guys think? Will other file sharing sites start getting shutdown? Will Megaupload make it through the court of justice?

The Black Out


Many sites today have taken up arms against the acts today by use of a blackout. What is a blackout I hear you asking? It’s a really simple and highly effective tactic, all they’ve done is closed down their front pages and linked them to petitions against the acts or they’ve left information about the acts. Here are a few examples just a to make a short list of sites that have participated.

1- WordPress
2- Wikipedia
3- Reddit
4- Mozilla
5- Minecraft

Many more websites have taken part in this movement, this list is just a few of the more notable sites. I have personally seen the effect it’s having, as people who I know who are not techies are posting links on social networking sites. It’s become so notable it’s being mentioned on British radio shows. The fact that high traffic websites are now taking part is really helping to increase awareness about what is actually going on with these acts is great news.

YBL4DA Game of the Year Ceremony

Ok, the voting period is over and it is time to award the awards. It has been very interesting because some categories have has as many entries as voters, meaning two things, first that luckily there are many, many good games to be played and second that you are all wrong.

So on the results!

YWBL4DA Best Single Player Game Award

No game got voted more than once, so no game gets the award.

YWBL4DA Best MMO/F2P Game Award

And the winner is… World of Tanks!

It is truly a very fun game, the upgrade structure is very grindy but the fact that you can swap from battle to battle makes it very fast. The levels are nice and despite some graphics problems it looks very good. For me, the game has two flaws, the first is that the game becomes much slower in the high levels when you get to use tier 3 , 4 and 5 tanks, and the second is that in order to make a team and play together for a 24 hour period, you have to pay. Even that would be acceptable if group size was not limited to 3 players.

Still, for a game that is free, you get a lot. And it deserves our award!

YWBL4DA Best Indie Game Award

And the winner is… Sanctum!

Sanctum is weird. It’s graphics are weird, the guns are weird and the monsters are VERY weird. But it is the first game to make a successful combination with three very different elements: Tower defence, first person shooter and coop. All of these elements could work better, but the game is very enjoyable and when the onslaught comes and the system fails, it is epically fun. Also, the text to speech function is awesome.

YWBL4DA Best Coop Player Game Award

This is an important category, given that our group is mainly coop oriented. It was a close race between Dungeon Defenders and the winner, but at the end, a single vote gave the victory to… Portal 2!

What can I say about Portal 2? It is coop, but completely different coop from other games. It is puzzle solving coop. The two players not only collaborate in the actual actions that it takes to solve the puzzle, they also push their brains together in order to find the solution. Those moments when you think you have found a solution and want to explain it to the other guy, but it seems so crazy that you can not even put it in words are beyond what any other game has done before. I played Portal 2 coop with Labchimp and Johnny and both times we laughed so much that at the end I was crying and with a sore throat. The voice of GladOS, the very last puzzle once you are in front of the vault, the personality traits of both robots… a delight.

YWBL4DA Best Surprise Award

This one goes narrowly to… Bastion!

I cannot say much about this game, as I have not played it. It has had very good press and it seems that the voiceover is pretty unique. I need to get into it.

YWBL4DA Biggest Disappointment Award

Of course, YWBL4DA’s biggest disappointment this year was Battlefield 3.

This one was pretty much evident. We were all waiting for this game and unfortunately, politics got in its way. It is a disappointment because expectations were so high that factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the game itself have made it very divisive. A pity, because I am firmly convinced that the game is awesome.

YWBL4DA 2011 Game of the Year Award

Well, this one was hard to choose. There was a tie in votes between two very strong contenders, Portal 2 and Skyrim. They are both very different, excellent games. One of them is big, full of content and detail. The other is a miniature, a smaller detailed experience. One of them is an open world where you can do anything, the other is crafted to make you live very strong scripted moments. Both are awesome and very successful. It was a very difficult choice and it took me a while, but I did choose.

YWBL4DA 2012 Game of the Year, with a grand total of 0 votes is Saints Row the Third!

I know, nobody voted for it, not even me. And I don’t care, Saints Row the Third is the best game of the year.

You jump off a flying VTOL, parachute to the ground, land on a car, take out your giant pink dildo and use it to hit on a tank until it explodes, then you request a cluster bomb airstrike on a bunch of wrestlers.  What other game can beat that? The story is bonkers, makes no sense and yet when the end comes, it does make kinda sense. Every cutscene and mission will make you laugh out loud. I will not spoil anything but believe me, it is awesome fun. It is funny, yes. Really funny.

The graphics are very good, the weapons are awesome, the voice acting is incredibly good… It laughs at other games, it laughs at you, it laughs at itself.

It is the best game of the year and fuck democracy.

The new Left 4 Dead: Payday

Ok, let me see how can I put this:
Remember how in the forum I said that Payday looked bad and that I had no interest in this game and that is was derivative and boring and I hated it and I never, ever would ever play it in a million years?
Well…
Payday is excellent.
Yesteday Tokey, Johnny and me played two or three levels and we had a load of fun. I thought I would make a small review here so that you can see how wrong I was.

The first thing you need to know is that  this game is very, very similar to L4D. That is very high praise coming from me and my 200 hours of zombie shooting.

What these people have done is taken the basic mechanic of L4D (4 player FPS coop teamwork) and many of the core tools that L4D used to enhance it and THOUGHTFULLY changed the setting and tweaked the rules. And it works!

Just like in L4D, you carry resources like ammo bags that you need to share, you see the silhouettes of other team players when they are in other rooms, you can help up fallen comrades… it feels L4D.
However, it is not a complete L4D clone. The setting is very different, you are a criminal going through various assaults, sometimes on a bank, sometimes on a drug dealers den. It really tries to make you feel like a robber in the heist of the film HEAT, one of my most hated films of all time. I hate Michael Mann, even if I agree that HEAT is his best work. And the game succeeds in doing it. The weapons feel powerful, the levels are well designed, they are simple to understand and yet very dynamic, they are well illuminated, the sound is clear yet strong… this game has flavour.
The designers were very clever, because when they started designing all these missions, they realised that they were going to be extremely linear and guided. The game tells you all the time what to do: Go here and plant explosives, then go there and capture that guy, now go two floors down, kill one guy and steal his key. L4D does not really tell you what to do, it is usually very self explanatory and yes, it is also linear because the level design is linear, but it does not feel as linear as Payday does. In L4D, less is more, you do not backtrack, you simply push buttons to open a door or raise a bridge or something. Payday is more twisty but still exactly as linear. So what is the problem with linearity? That it can become a corridor shooter like COD or BF single player modes and that when you replay it it will get boring really fast. But Payday has got to be linear and guided, the bank heist theme imposes it. Are there ways to still make it fun in the L4D style of fun? Well, the designers have some very good answers for that question.

The first answer is that Payday is about following a path, yes. With emphasis on teamwork, yes. But it ALSO is about ammo management. It is designed so that even in the easy levels you will run out of bullets and need to share with your buddies. The most ammo that a group can carry will run out very fast if badly managed. The team needs to coordinate if they want to place the ammo bags in the right moments and spots so that everyone refills and the team can go on fighting. It means that you are constantly aware of how much ammo you have left and it introduces an extra task that feels very exciting.
The second answer is that although the game does not have the AI director of L4D, it has other tricks, specially the level design. One level is all about moving fast through a city. We did not manage the first two times because although we shot well, took cover and managed the ammo, we were too slow and ran out of ammo against the infinite respawns of the police. So the game is designed to keep you on your toes or you will be punished. The third element I noticed is that the levels are much more interactive than a typical L4D level, you can do things to affect the amount of police that tries to stop you, for example destroying security cameras in a bank. Or capturing and then freeing civilians in exchange of a captured member of your team (Although there is respawn, it is extremely slow, in the order of the 5 minutes).
Compared to L4D, each level is more complicated and much longer than a single scene of a campaign but it is still shorter than a full campaign and it cannot be divided in morsels, you have to play the whole thing through. That means that there is going to be a certain fatigue at the end, a certain feeling that you cannot keep this fight up for much longer because you are almost out of ammo, almost out of time and down on health. But it comes at the right moment and feels very good when you finish a level.

So as you see, the game has a lot going for it. I am really surprised at this game and I think they did many things right. On the bad side, the lobby is worst than L4D and I did not succeed joining a game in progress. Also, I do not know if the game is very long. We played 3 levels yesterday and they felt great, but I do not know how many there are. Still, as with L4D, game length is not easy to measure. L4D looks short but I clocked 200 hours on the first one. It is till too early to know if it is fun enough to be as replayable as L4D is.

A small note on the bots: they are like L4D bots, very good teammates but dumb enough that a team of 3 is much worse than a team of 4.

So to finish, I am going to say that this is an excellent surprise. It feels closer to L4D even than L4D2 and I for one intend to dive into it.

SOPA / PIPA

What are your thoughts on making a communist internet? Sounds really appealing right, the congress resumes the discussions on Wednesday 21st December today. What are they discussing you ask? Well it’s the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) & Protect IP Act (PIPA) both of which could change the internet as we currently know it. It’s allows DNS blocking and the take down of websites that actively promote and take part in piracy. The main reason this is happening is because of Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) & Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). SOPA isn’t just about piracy; it’s about intellectual property-all property.

The entertainment industry has already proven that they can’t be trusted. Just this week, they abused the DMCA filters on YouTube to take down a video that they had no legal claim to, merely because they didn’t like the message it was spreading about these Acts. The song was called Mega Upload named after the great website for file sharing. It was made by many famous artists including – Diddy, Drake, Lil Wayne & many more artists. Mega Upload is a site predicted to have about 4% of the internet’s content. For a while the video was taken down due to Universal trying to claim Copyright infringements that just didn’t exist at all. This was in useless thought people were already re-uploading the song.

With the proposed ideas on the act there comes a lot of downsides sites you use might just disappear. Google has been filtering its search results for years. That’s proven very useful for the content owner representatives like the MPAA and RIAA. Many security problems also arise with the fact that people will try to work around these issues. Just remember that PIPA is just as bad an act and could cause just as many problems.