Friday, July 31, 2009

Returning to Rapture, a Tale of Two Machines

Alright, let's get this pre-amble outta the way: I started out 2009 with a promise to blog once a week. Here we are 8 months in, and I've only done a handful of posts. Where the hell did I go? Well, it's been a busy year, obviously. Work has been intense as we put more and more into the marketspace, there was the move up to SF, and...

...fine, I've been playing video games. Lots of them. I now play games more than I watch TV or read during my precious few hours of downtime each week. For some reason, I find it relaxing to sit on my couch blasting the crap out of aliens and Rome burns, Master Chief fiddles... or something like that. I know I should be blogging (readership is way down), and hell - even the number of my twitter posts is down.

So, here's the deal: I could write about MicroHooBing, or iPhone zombies, the need for Palm to get the hell out of Sprintville, or the emotional importance of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing - I am the RocketMan, after all - but others have covered that while I worked my joystick cramped hands to the nubs. What prompted me to come out of the stupor and return to the blogging fold was the video gaming itself.

I have two systems at home: an XBox360 and a PS3. I bought them both for other primary purposes (the XBox is a great media extender, and the PS3 plays blu-ray discs), but, hell, the gaming is there and I used to be a computer graphics architect...and I do have a few hours to kill... where IS that Bioshock disc I bought...? So, I started to play - and I wanted to give both machines a shot, so - yes - I did get eventually get Halo3 on the XBox...and, since the marketing of PS3 games was nowhere near as overwhelming in my consciousness as XBox games, I had to do a little more research on the PS3 to get the "right" game, so I bought Resistance: The Fall of Man.

As I began to play, I noticed myself on the PS3 more, which I thought was strange and I chalked up to the gameplay. In fact, I finished up Resistance just as Resistance 2 became available. Released 18 months after the original, Resistance 2 was a leap forward in the graphics, response time and interactivity. Blowing Halo3 out of the water for look and feel of the virtual world and critters that inhabit it.

Even so, the similarities in the gameplay between Resistance 2 and in Halo3 were uncanny. As in: they are basically the same game. Oh come now, fanboys, substitute the Chimera aliens and WWII soldiers of Resistance with the Covenant and UNSC of Halo3 and you have the same story. (Let the hate comments commence!) Why then, when I finished Resistance2 was I so reluctant to return to Halo3? Whenever I tried, the colors of the Halo universe seemed washed out, the game play seemed (for lack of a better term) "wonkier," and programming errors (like polygon collision) seemed more frequent.

OK, OK... yeah, these are two different games from two different companies separated in time by almost 2 years. Of course Resistance2 seemed to be brighter, zippier and more photo-realistic. Still, something didn't seem quite right...

Shrugging it off, I went out and picked up Left4Dead...this game had pulled in a legion of fans, and was relatively new - surely it was a better way to show off what the XBox could do... So, I popped it in and played for an hour or so, but I couldn't get into it. The gameplay felt contrived, confusing and stifling, the engineering errors were everywhere (you can make your character "float" by standing on a raised surface and stepping off slightly, for instance) and, once again, that "washed out" feeling was present everywhere in the zombie-infected streets of New York.

Now I was on a quest: was there a significant difference between these two consoles? As I mentioned, when I first got the XBox360, the game I took home with it was Bioshock. I have to say I was mesmerized. A lot has been written about the Ayn Rand nature of the story, and the moral choices that you make inside of the submerged city of Rapture. How many video games can you name that are set in 1960 and start with a monologue like this:

I am Andrew Ryan and I am here to ask you a question:
Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

No, says the man in Washington; it belongs to the poor.
No, says the man in the Vatican; it belongs to God.
No, says the man in Moscow; it belongs to everyone.

I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something

different. I chose the impossible. I chose...
— — Andrew Ryan

It's an interesting game providing the player with sometimes disturbing moral choices, up to and including killing infected children called Little Sisters in order to increase your potential for surviving through the game. This particular game plot point sparked controversy from the anti-videogame contingent at the time, and landed Bioshock in the list of controversial games. (For the record, I couldn't bring myself to kill the Little Sisters either - they squirm and scream, for god's sake! - so I found other ways through to the endgame.)

My interest in Bioshock gave me an opportunity: the game was available not only for the XBox360, but also for the PS3 - the moral choices made throughout the game allowed the plot to change significantly enough for me to play again from start to finish without getting bored. Developed by the same engineers, using the same graphics and physics engines, and released during the same time frame, Bioshock provided me with a reasonable way to compare two pieces of hardware against each other. So, back to Rapture I went...

Just a note for you whiny-one-system-or-another zealots out there: Both boxes route via HDMI through a Sony DA5200ES AV switching receiver, which is connected (also via HDMI) to a Pioneer Elite 50 inch plasma display. Audio is out through a Bose Acoustimass 16, 6.1 speaker system. I used the Sound&Vision calibration DVD to make sure that the consoles were set to as close to the same saturation and color levels as I could get. (Bioshock itself provides a simple, initial set up slider that allows you to set your relative black level.) So, as far as I am concerned, these systems run through the same audio and video pathways - the only difference is the obvious one: the pathways within the video game consoles themselves.

Popping the game into the PS3 console, the familiar strains of 1950's of music playing on a scratchy record came on my entertainment system speakers, and I immediately remembered the feeling of being engulfed by Rapture.... but, there was one more thing: quietness. I don't think I ever noticed it so acutely before, but the PS3 is damn quiet - especially when you compare it to the room-heater that is the XBox360. This time through Rapture I could actually hear the water lapping behind me, the sighs and insane ramblings of the splicers and the echoing of footsteps down the hall.

Controlling the fictional character "Jack" through the game, it was easy for me to confirm that the PS3 version of the game was a direct port from the XBox version - it had the same software bugs. (Walk down the flooding "skywalk" leading away from the medical pavilion to the half-closed bulkhead door, for instance, and you can easily insert your POV inside the polygons forming the bulkhead to become part of the door. ) I was glad to see the error which frustrated me so the first time I played - it indicated this was as close as I was going to get to an apples-to-apples comparison of machines.

Strange as it was to step back a few years in state-of-the-art graphics, the Art Deco world of Rapture still felt like moving through a living painting, with gorgeous gold-inlaid walls covered with deconstructionist period murals and creepy marketing slogans on billboards smeared with dried blood. The 5.1 audio is disquietingly convincing - especially playing with the lights out. All of these little cues made it easy to get lost in the game once again.

The controls on the PS3 version were similar to the XBox360 version, with Jack's genetically altered abilities available with your left hand, and the traditional weapons and tools available with the right. The PS3 DualShock controller vibrated in the same disturbing manner as the XBox controllers. (I do think the publishers 2K missed an opportunity not taking advantage of the accelerometer in the DualShock, but that would be a rewrite to the UIX rather than a direct port.) Because of this similarity, plus the speed of the processors on both consoles, motions through the world of Bioshock are seamless and quick on both systems. Still...the game just felt better on the PS3. What was that about?

Part of my subjective impression may be due to the differences in how the boxes render the graphics on the screen. I can only imagine that the bitmaps and rendered flatfiles are the same on both versions of the game. However, on the XBox360 I had the same issue that did with worlds portrayed in Halo3, Left4Dead and others: colors and contrasts on the XBox360 seem muted and washed out to my eye. Contrasts are low, and similar color schemes blend together in my visual field. The same imagery on the PS3 is clear, crisp and high contrast. The splicers and "Big Daddies" in Bioshock popped off the screen at me, whereas on the XBox I often had a hard time pulling them out of the shadows. (Never a good scenario when, you know, they're running at you screaming.)

So what have we learned from this, aside from the fact that Uncle Robby needs to get out more? The consoles themselves seem to operate basically the same when given the same set of physics engines and other algorithms. The controllers are essentially identical, and gameplay on both feels good.

There is, however, a perceived difference in the unquantifiable "enjoyment" between the two due to the quieter PS3 console, plus the PS3's apparent ability to render crisper, high contrast graphics with a higher dynamic color range...

...oh, yeah...and the PS3 has never failed in 2 years of use, the XBox360 however has already given me one red eyed glare in the same time frame.

Alright - back to blinding people with science! Well....maybe after I pop just one more Big Daddy.