Demo Weekend 2

I won’t be talking about Epic “stealing” Metro.  Or Steam saying it’s unfair.  Or the review bombs that clearly show why Steam reviews are a cesspool.  Or the entire irony of the situation.

I won’t talk about WoW’s recent patch that still doesn’t have Zandalari or Kul Tiran unlocked.  Or that the Horde/Alliance buff bonus caused Limit to faction change in order to take advantage.

I won’t even talk about the dumpster fire of Fallout 76 re-introducing old bugs with a recent patch.

Maybe I’ll talk about Facebook admitting to committing a crime when they harvested data from teenagers who “consented”?  Nah.

Glorious Friday is here.  Time to do things outside of the office, and take advantage of the small break in this polar vortex.  Keep shopping for some gaming laptops (kinda set on a GE73 or a GS73).

Oh, and maybe play some more of that Anthem demo.

Expectations

I have such a ridiculous distaste for EA’s business practices, yet a fondness for BioWare that this is causing a weird internal debate.  Ethically, I cannot pre-order any game, least of all from EA.  In terms of lockboxes and general RMT, EA’s model hit peak insanity with Battlefront 2.  And people still pre-ordered it.

Yet here I am contemplating an EA game.  It’s said that there are no lockboxes.  That there’s no paid DLC (which seems a bit odd… but ok).  It will likely have new javelins at cost (I guess like Rainbow6).  And there are customizations out the wazoo (at some pretty crazy price points).  We’re not talking $3 horse armor anymore.

I do like what I see so far.  When the game actually loads, the moment-to-moment stuff works, and works well.  There’s much more class diversity in terms of skills and weapon choices that’s more in line with Warframe than Destiny – a model I really liked.

The gaps that remain include:

  • the integration of story / player choice
  • the diversity of activities / creatures (Warframe’s model here is really hard to beat)
  • the diversity of sytem-wide events (e.g. Shaper Storms), though apparently that will happen on Sunday afternoon
  • the scalability of playing with people of different levels, and at different points in their quest line
  • the long-tail portion of the game at max level

All but the first one have significant impacts on the long term viability of the game.  The group interactions, multitude of events, and continual progress of the grind for loot drive engagement.  Quite curious to see how that plays out.

For now, it looks like a fun purchase.  And that’s the point, right?

Mock-Up Prices

I’m Canadian, so we pay for things in Timbits.

Let’s start with assumptions first – any piece that is listed as the same for PC and laptop, the laptop variant will have at least 15% less performance.  HDD and RAM are the only 2 components that can be swapped on laptops – restricting upgrade paths.  PC have much larger screen areas, and much better options.  I used the canadian version of NewEgg  as the price search tool, just for consistency’s sake.

Now understanding that this is not ever going to be apples to apples, at least conceptually it should be close.  The requirements are then:

  • i7 8700 (8th gen CPU)
  • 16GB DDR4 3000 RAM
  • 512 GB SSD HDD1
  • 2 TB HDD2
  • GTX 1070TI video card

Laptops

Given the fact that I can’t build a gaming laptop, I will be paying a premium for the build.

  • ROG Zephyrus M is $2500
  • MSI GP series for $2100
  • MSI GS series (thin) for $3600′
  • Razer Blade 15 (GTX 1060) for $2100

A “regular” sized laptop with a 1070 and a 60mhz screen seems to be the best price point, just around $2100.  It’s ~$500 more for a thin version, and another ~$500 for a 144mhz screen.

PC

This is more complicated, since I need all the parts, and arguably there is 10x more selection.  For the sake of simplicity, I will add baseline parts that are “middle of road”.

CPU  i7 8700K 500
MB Asus PRIME Z390-P LGA1151 160
RAM Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 3000MHz 185
1HDD Samsung 970 PRO NVME M.2 2280 512GB PCI-Express 3.0 x4 SSD 220
2HDD Western Digital Purple Surveillance 2TB 3.5″ SATA HDD 100
VIDEO Asus GeForce GTX 1070 TI 8GB GDDR5 570
COOL Corsair Hydro Series H60 90
SUPPLY EVGA 750 B3 750W 80 PLUS Bronze Power Supply 100
CASE Corsair Carbide SPEC-06 Tempered Glass Black Mid Tower Case 120
WIN Windows 10 180
Total 2225

Now, I could shop around for better price points, hopefully all from the same supplier.  I still would need a new monitor.  And again, this rig would be ~15% more powerful than the laptop, perhaps a bit more.

Getting a custom PC build with this setup is ~$600 in extra costs as a minimum.  Some places had it closer to $1500.

One suggestion was to build a cheap box with my kid as a learning experience.  A quick search on that comes to around $700, assuming I don’t want it to catch fire.  Pretty much everything is 50% less cost, the video card is $0 (for onboard instead), and the CPU is around $100.

Conclusion

There is no viable conclusion on a blog, when cost comparing PC parts.  That’s farcical.  However, my gut telling me that I can pay near the same price between two products and get more for my money is quite attractive.  Further understanding that the PC build will last longer since it’s parts are inherently replaceable is also motivating.

I guess religion, politics, and PC/Laptop are topics that have no easy answers!

Technology is Crazy

Or maybe we’re the crazy ones.

After my daughter and I finished up her hockey practice, I decided to go and pick up the RAM for the laptop.  I had already done some digging into which specific specs I had in the box.  I need to properly set the picture.  We had stopped at Booster Juice so she was standing in the computer store with this big container and straw, looking at what most sane people would call a junk store.

Anyhow, I catch the guy at the counter and he asks if I have the old stick.  I don’t, but I spit out the important bits:  DD3, 8Gig, 1600Mhz, 1.35volt.  (Say that out loud for a second.)  The look from my kid like I was talking some sort of space language…It’s enough, and he looks through a wall of RAM to find what’s needed.  This tiny little thing and we leave the store.

There were a lot of questions in the car ride back.  I start explaining what all that jargon means, and she asks that golden questions “why is it so complicated?”, followed by the geek question “can we build a computer?”.  To answer “to make people feel smart” and “sure, but we need to to some studying first.”

Computer Jargon

Or perhaps, I should say the abundance of ridiculous choice.  There are a half dozen viable choices of thermal paste today.  RAM comes in multiple sizes, speeds, and voltages.  CPUs are near indistinguishable (i7 has been around for 6 years).  It’s near impossible to pick a motherboard, or know what you’re buying.  And video cards…sweet baby jeebers – the GTX1080 has 3 variants (base, VR, TI).

And that’s aside from things like proper cases, power supplies, hard drives, and cooling systems.  Feels like I need an engineering degree so that I have a chance to see reflections in a puddle.  It’s such a ridiculously high barrier of entry.

I won’t talk about POST tests… argghgg

Simple Solutions

The PC market isn’t dying, it’s simply getting a smaller form factor.  I do get that PCs are even more niche now, but let’s be honest, laptops are the way forward.  At $500 you can get one that can do nearly everything you need, including some basic gaming.  For $2500 you can get a super slim ultra powerful laptop too – know that it’s entirely covered by warranty, and that it will work when you boot it up.  And with decent power management options, it can get through a day of work without charging.

I could build a PC for half the cost, but it would be physically stuck in a single place and 3x the size.  It’s pretty hard to “co-game” with someone with a PC, while a pair of laptops is stupid simple.  A port replicator gives that desktop feeling too.

Next Steps

As much as I would like to build a PC, I think for practical reasons it will be easier to get a gaming laptop.  Practical in terms of use, not purchasing.  Looking at options:

  • Sager/Clevo custom build (exact specs, great price, massive size)
  • MSI make some amazing rigs, at different form factors.  Stealth is almost an ultrabook.  Titan is a tank.  Raider seems a reasonable size.
  • Alienware was bought by Dell and reports are all over the place.  Build quality is strong, but cooling & fan noise seem to be a problem.  They look amazing.
  • ROG fits in-between the last two, with odd price points.

Key points I’m looking for:

  • 16GB of RAM
  • 256 SSD + 1TB of hard drive
  • Upgradeable storage/RAM
  • Thunderbolt 3 port (for docking/daisy chain to other things)
  • GTX 1070
    • Not enough games actually support ray tracing, and this card is still gives 4K, at less than half the price of an RTX2080.
  • 8th gen i7 CPU
    • 9th gen is marginal performance (5%) for ~$100 more.
  • Solid cooling to keep CPU < 80, and physical laptop < 32
  • Low noise levels when fans are at load
  • Screen size isn’t all that important, but a 17″ would be nice

That fun stuff runs around $2500 – with that Thunderbolt port being the tough one to find.  More digging required…and no real rush either.

Gaming on the Move

I’ve been building PCs since middle school.  Not sure why it clicked back then, but it was a pretty big deal for a long time.  And frankly, back then I could build a PC in about 30 minutes – with the OS build being the longest part.  Today?  It’s still easier than most people think, but it’s more of a science.

It’s been about 10 years since I built my last box.  I certainly enjoyed it, and the super flexibility of applying upgrades over time.  Replacing RAM or a video card is pretty simple.  Replacing a CPU… well that gets rougher.  Cooling options were starting to get a bit too complex for my tastes.  The next upgrade was a gaming laptop – a Clevo tank.  It provided all the benefits of desktop gaming, but allowed me to move around with it.

There are downsides to laptop gaming.  Replacing parts is more complicated.  Hell… just getting the parts is hard, as most video cards are only sold to resellers.  Plus, it’s not like you can get a new keyboard, or a new monitor.  It’s a complete package, and you’re going to pay a premium for it.  Plus, the thing can get hot as hell so a laptop tray is often a good call.

The last one I purchased in 2015.  Solid box at the time, with a 970M card.  The 1070M  is ~100% better, but I can’t really find one to buy.  Box currently has 8GB of RAM, which could certainly use a boost to 16GB.  CPU is an i7 but a 4th gen.   I am pretty sure I can upgrade to 7th gen, if I can find a chip, again not exactly common.  I can’t get an 8th gen (let alone 9th), that will require a new motherboard and new RAM – essentially a new laptop.  So really the only viable option here is more RAM – $50 should be able to get a new 8GB stick.

I think I’ll spend the new few weeks scoping out other options.  I like the idea of building a great gaming rig and then streaming that in the house.  Pretty sure I could build an entire super rig for ~$1500.  Another top end laptop, that’s more like $2500.   Been a while, and the rust is showing.  Still, fun to shop!

 

Demo Impressions

It’s a solid experience.

As with all games, there are some good bits, and less good bits.  For the most part, the good bits make the rest sort of not matter as much.

It’s a BioWare game, and Tarsis is the “story hub”.  The demo only gives you 3 quests, but as a sign of the rest I think it will be a fun run through.   Of the coop shooters I have played, it’s better than nearly all the others in that regard…sci-fi but not so weird it’s hard to follow (Warframe can be tough on that one).

The art, music, design are all top notch.  I think it caused my GPU to melt, as the PC shut down a few times.  Rarely are you unable to see where to go, or what’s going on, which is honestly a tough bag in any 3D game.  It’s a demo, so customization options are limited, but it’s pretty clear there will be a lot of options.  I do like that there are so many dye options, easy to get creative and lose time there.  It’s also good that each Javelin has their own outline, so that they are easily recognizable regardless of their armor sets.

Mechanics are decent.  There are some overall number issues, spawn rates, that sort of stuff that can be balanced without too much trouble.  Enemies aren’t just meat shields, they each have their own preferred tactics, weak spots, and strategies.  Shielded enemies need to be flanked.  Head shots matter.  The giant spider has weak points on the back.  You need to always be moving, dodging, or evading attacks (even as a tank).   The scar enemies attack in groups, and sometimes it feels cheap to be attacked by half a dozen enemies, who all eat through your shields in 2 seconds.   In particular in open areas.

Where things go a bit off the rails are on the environments.  I am used to cover based mechanics, or maybe that you can use the environment to avoid damage.  Large objects, that generally applies.  Smaller objects, like walls, that doesn’t seem to work.  One battle has you take on 3 fire giants who have massive fire AE.  Walls did nothing to stop that from hitting.  All too often I can’t hit an enemy but they can hit me.  The giant mech battle is a really good example of this too.

Flight mechanics I can’t get used to.  In a straight line, sure that works fine.  Anytime you need to actually move, or gosh forbid you’re underwater, it feels like you’re driving a rear wheel drive in the snow.  The amount of oversteer is insane.  It is a major distraction and I am really hoping there’s just something wrong with my control setup.  I’m still tweaking the sensitivity settings…

Javelin diversity works well enough.  I think there’s something wrong with the colossus though, as it seems entirely built for support.  Maybe it’s just the limitations of the demo, but having pure support in a shooter (with no real healing, or faster rez) doesn’t seem to jive so much.  That and that the defensive toolkit really doesn’t work when you’re getting attacked from multiple directions, and bosses still chew through them.  Will be interesting to see that class grow.  Ranger is fun, if your standard meat soldier.  Storm is the glass canon, but really the canon part could use some tweaking.  Their ultimate is insane, I’ll give it that.  Due to the elemental effects (fire, ice, or electric) it makes for some really interesting builds.  Interceptor, I don’t have much experience with, and I rarely saw any in the groups.

Weapon diversity is pretty much what you’d expect in a demo.  Rifles, snipers, shotguns, grenade launchers.  Some minor diversity within, short burst, full auto, that sort of stuff.  You cant upgrade weapons, and they don’t have a unique appearance… but maybe they do later on.  I will say that comparing weapons isn’t all that practical in the numbers game.  It’s nice that you have playstyle choice.

The game feels like it has a persistent memory leak.  I’ve crashed numerous times, hit an infinite load screen nearly every single mission, creatures suddenly pop in or out.  It’s just weird, and I fully expect that to be addressed at launch.

Honestly, a demo is a crappy way to look at the meta.  I won’t dig on that.  The moment to moment stuff, that really works well.  It’s clear there are some balance changes that will be applied for launch, since this is a 2 month old build.  But the tiny moments are fun.  It’s great to take on a giant mass of enemies, and barely scrap by.  It’s fun to take on a boss in a giant room, full of waves of enemies.  It’s fun to use abilities as a group, see some interesting combos come from it.

Pleasantly surprised by the end.

Poor Planning

I am anxious by nature, and one of the mechanisms I use to control that is planning.  I used to overplan, to the n-th degree, but over time I’ve learned to let some things just slide.  I think in reality, I’m just better at managing odds and the low percentage events get a whole lot less attention than they used to.

At work I oversee a team that supports a critical service for a whole bunch of clients.  Outages mean freakouts and long hours, so we go to great lengths to manage the risk.  IT, after all, is a commodity now.  And you only notice a commodity when it isn’t there (like water, electricity).  Planning of large changes takes a fair amount of lead time, and we need to do a lot of testing to make sure it works.  Part of that testing includes load/stress/failure, where we throw everything we can at system and see what happens.  We test at daily load, peak load, and critical load – meaning what do we normally see in a day, what is the highest number we see in a day, and what have we planned for before it melts.

For starting companies, launching a new product, this can be really hard to do.  Maybe the architecture/platform is new.  Maybe there wasn’t enough research to estimate the load.  Maybe you get really popular before you can grow.

For larger, established companies, these items should not occur.   The ol’ error 37 in Diablo 3.  The inability for Sim City to work for nearly a month.  New MMOs that melt for the first week.  Typically, this is borne from a) poor testing and b) poor market analysis for load (you are popular).

How do you know if you’ll be popular?  Today you can check pre-sales and the number of accounts registered.  Social media trends.  Analysis from gaming blogs.  Plenty of data to give you a pulse.  If you’re big enough, then you have extra hardware on stand-by anyhow, since you’re running a cloud-type data center.  May not be able to turn them on in 5 minutes, but a day or two should be reasonable.

Which brings me to the VIP demo for Anthem, and the servers “melting”.

The reason this is confusing is that the VIP demo is only for players who have

  • Pre-ordered
  • Active on Origin Premier
  • Have received an invite and linked it to their account

That is a fraction of the launch day user base.  It’s an even smaller fraction than those that will use the open beta.  Plus… it’s not like EA has no experience running online games – Battlefield V is only a month or so old.

So maybe the server architecture is too complex to spin up.  Maybe they had already planned to add capacity and the equipment came in late.  Maybe their stress testing wasn’t accurate and this is the fall back plan (my $$ on this one).

Regardless, it’s good news that they are able to react this quickly.  Glad the days of waiting weeks for server capacity are behind us.  And really, the entire point of this demo is to test the infrastructure for load and bugs.  Better now than on launch.

Guacamelee 2

Or rather, how Celeste has spoiled me.

I never had the chance to play the first game, but I always heard it was a nice gem of a game.  The metroidvania genre has always been a fun time.  Super Metroid really did a bang up job there, and most of the DS Castlevania games hit it out of the park. The genre does seem somewhat relegated to the indie space, as it doesn’t translate well to 3d games.  Darksiders tried that approach, and there’s a bit of it in the Zelda series, but I can’t really think of other examples.

guacamelee-2-review-shot-18

All the red will kill you.

The game seems to be aiming for satire more than much else.  The skill upgrade nodes are straight out of Metroid.  I get the stereotypical/pun heavy humor.   It generally works, and makes the story move forward. The art and music is top notch too.  Feels like a realized world, which is oddly important.

Your character unlocks various abilities over the course of the game, but those abilities seem at odd with the fundamental concepts of the game.  I mean, you’re a wrestler.  Should you not know how to body slam from the start?  The various directional slams are used in combat, and also used to destroy extremely obvious blocks, for extra areas.  There’s an entire subset of the game dedicated to the chicken form (yes!) and it’s skills.  You’ll go an hour only being able to punch up, then 2 hours of punching sideways, then you finally unlock punching down.  Meh.

The good thing, is that the map is extremely detailed, and shows you exactly which blocks are where, and what treasure chests you’ve seen but haven’t yet acquired.  It diminishes a lot of the secret finding, as the map is likely more obvious than the game screen, but it’s a welcome addition.

Where I am spoiled is in the controls.  Celeste has perfect controls.  It has perfect level design, down to the pixel.  You don’t scrape by a spike, you hit a spike.  You don’t hit imaginary walls, momentum means something, and it’s crystal clear each puzzle was tested to infinity and beyond.

Guacamelee 2 is very loose, and the timing is off.  Many of the more challenging puzzles require multiple sequential button presses, and specific directions to complete. It may go something like, jump, slam, punch, pull, slam, pull, pull, punch, dash.  And at no time can you touch the ground.  Celeste taught me that was achievable and that I simply had to learn the timing.  Guacamelee 2 has nothing to do with timing.  It has pixel correction and the art does not match the pixels.  Some spikes are wider than others, even though they look the same.  Momentum is not applied consistently.  You character will get animation-locked in a specific direction.  What I mean here is that the puzzles are well designed, but poorly implemented.

Thankfully, nearly all of the puzzles are optional.

Take the puzzles out and the rest is really top notch.  Battles are fun, the world is great to explore, the chicken mode is great, there are multiple alternate costumes, plenty of side quests, a neat skill tree, and really fun boss fights.  The important thing, is that it’s fun.  Well worth the buy.