Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Popular In Every Country Except The U.S., It's Formula One Racing Time!

Quick question - how do you pump up sales for an over-priced video game machine that's still buggy and has questionable developer support? Simple. Release a game that won't sell in the United States. The country that just happens to be your biggest market. Smooth move, Sony.

Released yesterday, Formula One Championship Edition for the PS3 is the first F1 game released for a U.S. Playstation console in about 5 years. The reason for that? Practically no one in this country cares about Formula One racing, so the games don't sell. But considering how thin the PS3 library is at this point, Sony is taking a chance and has brought the World Championship of racing back to our shores. Why do I get the feeling that I'll be writing that exact same paragraph again in 5 or 6 years time, replacing the "3" in PS3 with a "4". Time will tell...

First, some good news - this is actually a decent game (despite the lackluster Gamespot review - check it here). Visually, this is a very polished game, which will excite all you HD fanboys out there. The rain effects are especially good. And the racing physics is also up to par. If you're a noob, keep the driver aids on, and you'll make it around the track. But if you're a seasoned pro, turn them off for some real racing. But be warned - this is a racing sim, and not an arcade style racer. If you're all about the big drifts and jumps, stick with Ridge Racer 7 or Full Auto 2. But for the Gran Turismo fans out there, this one should also be enjoyable.

Now some bad news. Believe it or not, the career mode is actually a little too realistic. Not only do you have to try out for the team (which isn't a bad thing), once you make it, you're officially just a test driver! You still have to battle to get your shot in the real races. Now I'm sure all 6 die-hard F1 fans out there are loving that point, but a couple thousand other gamers aren't sharing in the love. Fortunately, the other modes of the game are quite good, so there's no need to suffer through the career to get to the racing.

Speaking of alternate modes, online play is included (it wasn't in the Japanese release of this game, which came out months ago). Online play supports up to 11 players, which is half of an F1 grid. That should allow a good mix of competition.

A couple other things worth mentioning for the true F1 fans. This game follows the 2006 season, so it should be the last game to feature Michael Schumacher. The 2006 season also means that Spa was not on the calendar, so you'll have to do without one of the best F1 circuits out there. There are also some extras in this game, in the form of some classic F1 race cars. Unfortunately, you can't use them in any of the races, but they're available for testing runs once you unlock them.

So is this a buy? If you're an F1 fan, definitely - you'll love the game. For casual racing fans, MotorStorm, which will be released later in March, will probably be more fun. But considering that decent PS3 games are few and far between at this point, adding this one to your library might not be such a bad idea. And hey, it'll make you more popular with the European babes - they're nuts for F1.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Comic Con NY - Cause East Coast Geeks Need Love Too

For years, east coast comic book geeks have had to haul a$$ all the way out to San Diego just to get their X-Men and Incredible Hulk fixes at Comic Con. But all that changed last year, with the introduction of New York Comic Con. East coast comic freaks were thrilled, as it meant less money spent traveling, and more money spent on a life size bust of Black Cat (money well spent).

The second annual New York Comic Con took place this past weekend at the Javits Center in NYC, and it was bigger than last year. All the major players in the comics, movies, and toy world were there, including Marvel, DC, Amok Time, Mattel, and Lions Gate (full list here). You see, Comic Con isn't just about comic books - it involves all the major entertainment players. Over the years, the big companies have realized just how much money there is to be made in the comic universe. Unfortunately, that's meant that we've had to suffer through such mediocrity as Daredevil and Elektra, but good things, like the Spiderman movie franchise, have also come from it.

Some big news this year revolved around the 10th anniversary of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV show. Much of the cast, but not Gellar, showed up for a panel on Saturday, to interact with the fans and sign autographs. Some other notables at this year's convention included Stan Lee (wouldn't be a Comic Con without him), Stephen Colbert, Jason Mewes, and Hayden Panettiere - probably the first time a hottie TV cheerleader was within 10 feet of a comic book.

Notable by his absence was Kevin Smith, unless he was hiding somewhere in the back. Smith has been very involved in the comic book world over the years, although he's never really had as much time for it as the fans would like.

Unfortunately, Hasbro was too tied up with Toy Fair to have any major Transformers announcements at the show, but there's still plenty of time for more news to drop between now and July. But Comic Con International (in San Diego) will be in the end of July, after the Transformers movie release, so a large presence there probably isn't a good bet.

Check out all the details about this year's NY Comic Con at the official website here. And truthfully, that stuff I said about one or the other show is nonsense. You're not a true fan unless you hit both. So save those pennies, and sell that autographed hardcover copy of The Watchmen if you have to, but be sure to make it to San Diego this summer, and NYC next winter. Cause you never know when a hot TV cheerleader is going to be at the Con.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Toy Fair 2007 - No Kid Is Worth This Much

The 2007 International Toy Fair took place in New York City recently, with all the major toy manufacturers showing off their goods for the coming year. The theme this year seemed to be technology - apparently, it's not considered a toy anymore unless it has a microchip inside and connects to the internet.

Hasbro had a major showing this year, with the requisite Star Wars figures (because you need a seventh limited edition Darth Vader) and Spiderman 3 tie-in crap. But the best part of the show had to be the Transformers. 2007 will give us an all-new live action Transformers movie (opens July 4 - homepage here), and as a result, Hasbro is pulling out all the stops with this year's figure lineup. (And for the record, they're not dolls, they're action figures.)

All your favorites from the original series are back with all-new molds, including leaders Optimus Prime and Megatron. As with so many big budget films, corporate tie-ins are here, in the form of actual GM bodies for many of the Autobots characters. This was most evident in the star of the Transformers collection, Ultimate Bumblebee (pictured above). Standing 14 inches tall and packed with enough electronics to start a riot if you try and board a plane with him, he's being billed as the most complex Transformer ever. And, he just so happens to transform into a new Chevrolet Camaro. This guy is rumored to set you back about $90, so all you fanboys better start saving now.

It's hard to characterize something as a toy when it's more technologically advanced than a DVD player, but here we are. Pretty soon, toys may be on the cutting edge of technology, with your home computer learning a thing or two from Furby 2.0. No one said the future would be pretty.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Freebie - Make Some Noise, And Then Record It

It used to be that computers came bundled with some type of audio recording software beyond Windows' woefully underpowered Sound Recorder. But that was in the days of the separate sound card. In today's world, where 99% of computers are using sound chips integrated directly onto the motherboard, there's no more bundled audio software.

So what are you supposed to do if you feel the need to lay down some wicked tracks? You could buy a tape deck, but that's way too 1980's. You could drop $100+ on some software, but you're a cheapskate. And that's where the freeware comes in - check out Audacity:

Audacity is a fully functioning sound recorder and editor. With it, you can record some brand new sounds, or tweak out some old recordings. You can even use it to transfer your old cassettes to digital format (guess you'll need that tape deck after all).

Supporting a wide variety of codecs, you can cut, trim, equalize, alter pitch, and apply effects to your music. It supports sampling rates up to 96 KHz, and you can even mix tracks with different sampling rates - Audacity will automatically convert them to match.

And best of all, the program is completely free. It's covered under the GNU General Public License, which means you can install it on as many PCs as you want, give it to anybody, and even improve the program if that's your thing. Go nuts.

Visit the Audacity homepage here, and download Audacity here - it's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux OS's. As for you FreeBSD guys out there - you're on your own.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Girl You Know It's True, Ooh Ooh Ooh, This Movie's Gonna Suck

The suits over at Universal Studios are really pulling one out of their a$$es this time. Rumor has it that they are green-lighting a film based on the real story behind the music duo Milli Vanilli. Milli freakin' Vanilli! You remember, those guys who won a Grammy for - ahem - "singing".

Am I missing something on this one here? Were these guys actually considered popular at some point? Yes, I realize they won a Grammy, but you can buy those things on eBay on the cheap. And are there people out there today actually thinking to themselves, "hey, I wonder what those Milli Vanilli guys were thinking when they lip-synched those songs". Well, allow me to save you a little time - they were thinking about making tons of money! There. Now all three of you people out there who were asking that question have your answer. Case closed.

See that Universal? No need to make this one. Pack in this train wreck in the making, and give us something we can all happily make fun of. Perhaps another Nutty Professor movie. Oh wait, Eddie Murphy's going to be too busy with the sequel to Norbit for that...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Halo 3 Beta Now Available – Act Now And Get A Free Copy Of Crackdown!

Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for – the Halo 3 beta is finally available to the masses! Starting today, any gamer can pick up an invite to participate in the Halo 3 beta, and all it will cost you is the price of a completely different and unrelated game – Crackdown.

Ordinarily, the only way to get into a beta program is to sign up online, and be "randomly" picked. The upside – this is usually free. The downside – there's no guarantee you’ll be selected. Earlier in the year, Microsoft did offer a number of free options to get into the beta, including a random drawing and a tournament for those playing Halo 1 and 2 on Xbox Live. But for the Master Chief wannabes that missed out, there is another option – buy a copy of Crackdown.

For a limited time, specially marked copies of Crackdown will include an invitation to the Halo 3 beta on Xbox Live. The only rub is that Crackdown will cost you $60. That's definitely not cheap, but for die-hard Halo fans who missed out on the previous options, it's a small price to pay.

This whole matter is not without some controversy. MS has come under fire from gamers for packaging this with a full-price AAA title, making the beta as expensive as it possibly could be. And yes, they probably should take some flack for that. But look at the situation this way – without this, you probably wouldn't have a guaranteed way into the beta. Or, on the flip side, they could have packaged it with a game like Viva Pinata or something, which would have really sat well with all the gamers out there…

Say what you want, but a guaranteed invite to the beta for what will surely be the most popular 360 title is a good thing. And truth be told, Crackdown is a decent game. It's a GTA-style free roam shooter, with a unique twist of allowing your character to upgrade his physical abilities (think Spiderman jumping from rooftop to rooftop). Granted, some of the reviews for the game have stated that it's a little one-dimensional, but those are the breaks (here's a full review from Gamespot). And if the H3 beta is worth $30 to you, then Crackdown is a much more reasonable value.

Long story short – unless you're a hard-core Halo fan, don't buy this just for the beta. Save your money for the full release later this year. But if Crackdown looks good to you, and you're a Halo fan on top of it – now's the time to buy. So fire up your Warthog and head to the store, cause you know these will sell out fast.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

DRM Sucks - But We Already Knew That

If you're any kind of computer user, you probably know a thing or two about digital music. Specifically, you know that almost any song you buy online from one of the "major" retailers will come wrapped in Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which is just a fancy way of saying "restrictions". And since you know this, you probably shy away from making many (if any) online music purchases. Simply put, DRM sucks, and everyone knows that. Apparently, this includes Steve Jobs.

About two weeks ago, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted a letter online describing why his iTunes store sells files with DRM, and what he really thinks about it (read it here). In short, he says that the evil record companies forced him to implement DRM. Without it, the iTunes store wouldn't exist. But, he goes on to say that he would rather live in a world without DRM.

Let's take a look at all this. First, he's correct about the record companies - they do force just about all online music retailers to implement some type of DRM (and yes, they are evil - though that's a bit of editorializing). So, iTunes would not be the most successful online music store if they didn't use DRM. That being the case, why is Jobs looking to ditch it?

There's been a fair amount of consumer backlash regarding DRM over the years, and it finally seems to be coming to a head. Now that the "newness" factor of digital downloads has worn off, people are coming to realize that they're paying nearly the same amount of money for an inferior product that can't be used in all situations. Why would anyone waste money on that?

So are we to believe that Steve Jobs is putting the consumer first? In a word, no. Don't misunderstand - it's great that someone in his position is speaking up, since in the end it will benefit the consumer one way or another. But we need to look at the facts here. Despite iTunes being the most successful music store online, it was only created to popularize the iPod. Mission accomplished. Also, despite having sold millions of songs, the iTunes store earns Apple little to no money. And removing DRM would probably make that profit margin even worse, since the studios would demand more compensation for selling unrestricted music.

All this begs the question - what is Jobs doing? My guess is that he's looking to dump the music store altogether, since that segment is basically locked up by Apple. Once the iPod can play songs purchased from other online music retailers, there's no need to continue the business. Apple can then focus on their next conquest, video. You'll notice that Jobs only spoke out about the DRM in music. He said nothing about video, which tends to have even stricter DRM attached to it. Why leave that out, unless they plan to continue with that business model?

Honestly, the whole thing is a little strange. But as I said, one way or another this will be good for the consumer in the long run. Case in point - word has already leaked that some major music labels are considering doing away with DRM, either in part or completely, sometime this year. Of course, all this comes on the heels of Microsoft releasing its new PlayReady DRM system, so who really knows what's going on.

The digital music landscape is ripe for a change, and this may be just what the doctor ordered. Let's hope that the labels are finally put in their place, and are reminded that we are customers - not criminals.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Freebie - A Blue Screen Of Death, Courtesy Of Microsoft

We're starting a new feature here on the Playground, called the Friday Freebie. Every Friday, we'll present something new for you, available free from the internet. And we're starting things off with a bang...or maybe a crash would be a better way to put it.

We all know about the (in)famous Microsoft Windows Blue Screen Of Death, or BSOD. It's the screen that pops up in Windows when things go completely wrong, and the OS grinds to a halt. Unfortunately for some, there's just no escaping it. But for many Windows users, this screen is just a distant memory - XP and now Vista have proven to be much more robust operating systems, to the point where many users must no longer bear witness to the dreaded BSOD. And for those, let me introduce you to the BlueScreen Screen Saver.

This screensaver delivers the BSOD right to your desktop whenever you want it - no buggy drivers or crappy shareware needed. It simulates a crash to the BSOD, followed by a reboot of the OS - it can even simulate disk activity to further add to the realism. The cycle repeats every 15 seconds, presenting a different crash on the BSOD each time. Needless to say, this is an excellent way to scare the crap out of somebody - just install the screensaver on a friends computer, and let the good times roll.

Here's a screen shot for those of you not familiar with the BSOD:

This file is actually offered courtesy of Microsoft, and can be downloaded right from them for free (right here). I guess this one falls under the category of "any publicity is good publicity". Then again, maybe they're so confident that XP and Vista users have never seen a BSOD, that this is the only way one will ever cross a your screen. Yeah, I don't buy that either...

Remember, we'll have something new every Friday, so keep coming back for more. After all, you can't beat free.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Microsoft Needs Volunteers!

Have a spare computer laying around? If so, you can join the beta program for the Windows Home Server! (Try and contain your enthusiasm.)

Actually, this is a pretty cool product. If you haven't heard of it, this is a piece of software based on Windows Server 2003, souped up with some Vista bits, designed to bring servers into the home. The software features automated intelligent backups, which can automatically backup every PC on your network daily (without keeping multiple copies of the same file). It gives you the option to restore anything from a single file to an entire PC easily. The box also functions as a traditional server, storing and sharing any files you have. Rumors indicate that (in the final release) the server will be accessible remotely through Windows Live, so you can - for instance - stream your music collection directly to your work PC. With the RIAA's blessing, of course.

The software is designed to be operated by someone that has never managed a server before, so you don't need an IT degree to use it. However, all the underlying code for Server 2003 is still there (and accessible), so if you know what you're doing, you can turn this into a very powerful machine.

It's important to note that this is only a software solution. When the final product is released, the server hardware will be sold by retail partners such as HP. However, MS indicated that the software would be available separately as an OEM product, so you should be able to build your own box as well.

But for now, it's just the beta software. Apparently, the software is fairly stable, but there's no comment on what features are present in the beta besides the automated backups. Still, it looks like a nice OS, and it should be interesting to see just how good the compression on the backups is (some wild numbers came out just after CES).

If you'd like to give it a whirl, sign up for the beta here. It's no guarantee that you'll be selected, so be sure to pad the survey a little...

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Get Free Stuff For Playing Your Xbox 360

Remember going to the arcade to play Skee-Ball when you were little? You would win tickets that you could redeem at the counter for "valuable" prizes (and by valuable, I of course mean cheap crap). But at least you were getting something. That all changed when video games came into the home, until now. Now, that home console of yours may just start paying you back.

Thanks to the power of corporate marketing, you can get some free stuff just for scoring achievements on your Xbox 360. Starting February 12, Microsoft and Old Spice (yes, the stuff your grandfather wears) will be offering the Xbox Rewards and Old Spice Experience Challenge program. Basically, it means if you score enough achievement points (experience), you get some free stuff (rewards) - I think they call that "synergy".

The program runs from Feb. 12 to Apr. 12, and you have to raise your score by at least 1500 points during that time. That's easier said than done for some people, but for those of us that live and die by achievements, it's just another day at the office.

So what can you get for your long hours, you ask? Well, it depends on what "level" you fall into. That means all you hardcore gamers are eligible to win more (including an Old Spice T-shirt and a copy of Fuzion Frenzy 2), while the casual gamers will have to settle for Contra on the XBLA and an Old Spice gamer pic. But hey, free is free.

Hit the Xbox Rewards page for more info on the program, and to register on Feb. 12. Remember, that's the only day you can sign up for the program, so if you're prone to blackouts on Monday's (you know who you are), be sure to have someone poke you with a sharp object and remind you.

I have to say, it's really nice to see something like this in place. Granted, some of the "rewards" aren't that hot, but remember, this is just a first attempt on Microsoft's part. A permanent achievement point reward system would be huge for the Xbox, and would really make gamers happy. For the first time in a long time, it won't just be about bragging rights - it'll be about the goods. Game on!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tromadance 2007 - How Many Of These Things Are There?

That's right, it's time to review yet another film festival - who knew that Park City, Utah got so much play? This time it's Tromadance, the festival for - you guessed it - films from Troma Entertainment, that wacky bunch who's brought us such cinematic classics as The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die!, and Class of Nuke 'em High. Not to be outdone by those other film festivals, the Troma group has been going out for the past seven years to support truly independent films.

What makes the Troma event so special? For one thing, it's free. Anyone can walk in off the street and watch as many screenings as they want. In fact, that's the point - this event is about giving back to the fans. They're able to do this because everyone "working" with Troma on the festival is actually a volunteer. Fans come from all over the country (and the world) to promote Troma and support its films, along with all the independents. Here's a taste of what this year's festival had to offer:

Viva. This one is for all the guys, as it follows the exploits of a young divorced woman as she embarks on her own sexual revolution. Set in 1972, this homage to the classic sexploitation films of the past is a real treat for the eyes.

Zombie Prom. Yes, the zombie trend made it to every festival this year. But would you expect anything less from a filmfest sponsored by Troma? This time, it's all about young love in the '50s, until an overbearing principal gets between the two kids (not literally, but that would be a good movie too). Anyway, Jonny, distraught over losing his girl, throws himself into a nuclear reactor. But love triumphs over this, when Jonny returns to his darling Toffee as a zombie. Modeled after a horror comic, this musical comedy proves that even zombies need love too.

I'm Keith Hernandez. I don't really know too much about this short film, other than that it's about Keith Hernandez, the former first baseman of the 1986 World Series Champion New York Mets. I just thought I'd mention it because some people probably didn't realize that he's actually still alive. Well, now you know.

With any luck, Troma will continue to bring us their twisted and oh-so-lovable brand of comedy for many years into the future. And hopefully they'll also continue to promote the cause of young independents through festivals like Tromadance. These venues are often the only way for the public to see movies that are created outside the Hollywood sphere, and we can't let the vast pool of talent that exists throughout the world dry up. So, if you find yourself in Utah next January, hitting the "mainstream" festivals, be sure to check out Tromadance for some good fun with real die-hard movie fans.

For more on this year's festival, visit the homepage here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Musicals Are Lame - Unless They're About Video Games

I think most guys would agree with the general consensus here on the Playground - musicals are for wussies. But as it turns out, some musicals are okay, as long as they're about a topic near and dear to our hearts. And that was the case this past Monday, when X-Play debuted their musical episode, X-Play The Musical (not the most original title, but hey, at least you know what you're getting).

The X-Play musical sets the premise of Adam and Morgan making a deal with the devil in order to make the best video game in history (and get money, fame, and superpowers in the process). But as with all deals with the devil, things go horribly wrong, and the game is a disaster (it's a Dreamcast exclusive, no less). In the end, the devil makes off with the cash, and Adam and Morgan go back to what they're good at - ridiculing the work of others.

The singing and dancing in this epic are top notch - X-Play is never one to skimp on a theme episode. The truth is, they really made this work (and this is coming from someone who's all-time least favorite Simpson's episode is All Singing, All Dancing, so there's no bias here).

Those of us familiar with the show have come to expect great things from the X-Play bunch, and it's great to see that they're still delivering after all this time. That being said, I'm not hoping for another musical episode anytime soon - one is plenty for me. But hey, keep the fresh ideas coming!

In case you missed it, head over to the X-Play The Musical Episode page to find a future airing. And if you just want more, hit the feature page right here for some downloads and behind the scenes goodness.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Aqua Teen Terrorism

By now, you've probably heard about all the commotion in Boston the other day associated with the marketing blitz for the upcoming Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. But just in case, here's the lowdown:

Turner Broadcasting (the parent company of Cartoon Network) hired a firm to hang light boxes (essentially Light Brites) on buildings and structures in 10 major cities around the country, depicting characters from the series and upcoming movie. The characters were the Mooninites, two small square guys who like to give "the finger" to people. A Boston resident spotted one of these devices hanging from the underside of a bridge the other day, and notified the authorities. This is where things got out of control.

The authorities, fearing the item could be a terrorist bomb, closed off the area and detonated the device. When reports of similar devices started coming in from around the city, areas of Boston were shut down in fear of a wide-spread attack. Of course, as it turns out, it was all just a big misunderstanding. Once all of this came out, Turner Broadcasting issued an apology, and disclosed the locations of all the other signs in the country.

Now here's the rub - Boston officials have arrested the two men who hung the signs in Boston, and they now face criminal charges. Further, the city is looking to hold Turner Broadcasting accountable for the financial cost of the investigation to the city.

Now first things first - the person who initially reported the sign to the authorities is in no way to blame for all of this. That person simply saw a suspicious-looking object on a bridge, and correctly notified the authorities. The blame for this whole fiasco lies with the Boston authorities. Upon investigation of the first "device", they should have realized that it was just an industrial-strength Light Brite, and let everyone know that there was nothing to worry about. Instead, they were so afraid of nothing that they blew the whole incident out of proportion.

My guess is that the mayor and city officials realize how poorly they handled this situation, and just don't want to own up to it. So, to save face, they're pointing blame at anyone and everyone they can. A simple apology from Boston city officials would go a long way in putting this all behind us.

Now I'm not saying that this wasn't a stupid move by the advertising department over at Turner Broadcasting. They should have notified city officials ahead of time, and perhaps even investigated the need for any permits to hang the devices. But that doesn't excuse the overblown response from Boston city officials in this matter.

And what's the best part of this whole saga, you ask? Well, it's two-fold: First, the devices were hung in 9 other major U.S. cities, including New York, LA, and San Francisco, and no one there over-reacted to them. In fact, some people stole them for their homes or businesses, or to re-sell on eBay. Second, the signs were hanging in Boston for 2-3 weeks before this whole incident happened...2-3 weeks!

The simple truth is, the fear of terrorism has been so ingrained in everyone by the government that we're all jumping at our own shadows. We need to all just relax and evaluate each situation for what it is, without jumping to conclusions. Not everything that happens in this country is terrorism related.

There's one thing that can't be overlooked about all this, however - this whole incident has meant great publicity for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Something tells me the series' ratings are going to go up a notch or two in the coming weeks...