Thursday, April 28, 2011

The PSN Data Breach - Can Sony Recover?

As the Playstation Network outage enters its ninth day, Sony has been dealt another blow with the confirmation that the network has indeed been hacked and the personal data of the network’s 77 million users may have been compromised. The reaction from consumers has been volatile to put it mildly, and some are speculating that this could be a crushing defeat that Sony will never recover from. The devoted fans of the Xbox 360 and other consoles have also been relishing Sony’s misfortune, taking to internet forums and chat groups to rub salt in the wounds of dejected PSN users in a childish display of hubris. At the end of the day, what does this data breach mean for Sony and will they be able to recover? As is customary for me, I have plenty to say on the matter.

The details of the breach itself have been reported extensively, but to summarize, a hacker (or group of hackers) accessed encrypted areas of the Playstation Network and through this gained access to a plethora of private customer information. The belief is that the majority of the information compromised is usernames, passwords, address and personal information stored on the network. There is no direct evidence that credit card information was taken, however in keeping with the spirit of “better safe than sorry”, it must be assumed that one area being hacked means the entire system is vulnerable and credit card information could have been harvested by these hackers. This has sent PSN users into a panic and I have no doubt that credit card companies have experienced an influx of calls from people asking to change their credit card information. This is a wise cautionary move and it’s always better to err on the side of caution in these cases. Having said that, it’s important to understand that information being compromised is not the same as information being stolen or used for criminal purposes. With 77 million users worldwide, you are a drop in the ocean and it would be impossible for a hacker to even use a fraction of the information obtained to steal money, so you have a better chance of dying in a plane crash while holding a winning lottery ticket than you would being a victim of fraud in this breach. In the very unlikely event that your information is used fraudulently, credit card companies and banks have fraud liability clauses that protect you from incurring a loss, so you are protected even if the worst case scenario does come to fruition.

To say that Sony has taken heat for this breach is an understatement. Any kind of data breach erodes consumer confidence, but this being one of the largest companies in the world and then number of users being affected definitely puts the potential losses for Sony into the billions of dollars. In my own interactions with others online, the reaction has been hostile, with people declaring that they will never buy another Sony product again and that they will sell their PS3 consoles and go with the competition. I assume much of this is said out of anger, but it does show that people take this very seriously and Sony definitely cannot afford to allow this to happen again. We will no doubt see beefed up security when the PSN goes back online and Sony’s PR machine will kick into overdrive in an effort to make amends with consumers. There will be lawsuits, broken consumer confidence and some grumbling from people, but the dust will settle and people will move on. Let us not forget that Microsoft took a huge hit with the Xbox 360 and one of the largest product recalls in history because of the “Red Ring of Death” debacle, which also resulted in lawsuits. Added to which, there was an outage on Xbox Live that lasted for 11 days in 2007, which is harder to swallow given that this is a paid service. If anything, this shows that consumers are very forgiving and have short memories, so I see the negative fallout from this being fairly short term.

People have also given Sony flack for taking a week to inform people that their personal data has been compromised, and I was initially taken aback by this as well. However, I have a good friend who works in fraud restoration and investigations, dealing extensively with data breaches, and he actually said that this is faster than the norm. When a breach happens, there needs to be an internal investigation, law enforcement and outside security firms need to get involved and the exact extent of the information breached needs to be determined before consumers are made aware of it. This process often takes one to two months on the low end, while in some cases people haven’t been notified until six months after the fact. This seems like a long time, but informing people prematurely runs the risk of not informing them completely or pushing the panic button needlessly. Also, when law enforcement is involved, saying too much too soon can compromise the investigation. To the average consumer, this means very little when their own personal information is on the line, however there are behind-the-scenes aspects that also need to be considered.

At the end of the day, it’s important to understand that privacy breaches happen. It’s a reality of the age we live in and this is definitely not the last of its kind we’ll see. If anything, the PSN breach has prompted us to take steps to protect our sensitive information that we should have been doing all along, like not allowing our credit card numbers to be stored online. I’m guilty of this as well, so I have since removed my credit card numbers from all sites I have business dealings with and I will use point cards for Xbox Live and the Playstation Network moving forward, and if I need to use credit cards online, they will be for ad hoc purchases and I will not allow my number to be stored. The less of you that is online, the less likely you are to be a victim. But what I urge people is be cautious and make necessary changes in light of this breach, but don’t panic or jump on the “Boycott Sony” bandwagon. The system is currently down and I hope it stays down until the security holes are fixed, but life goes on and the breach doesn’t negate the 10 years I have been gaming on Sony consoles. I still love my Playstation 3 and the many great games I own for it, so the wounds will heal and the sun will rise another day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Playstation Network Outage - Make The Best Of It.

As of this writing, the Playstation Network has been down for five days and counting. This has no doubt been a painfully arduous five days for the 70 million games why rely on the PSN to satisfy their online gaming needs, while at the same time being a glorious week for Xbox Live fanboys who have been gloating up a storm on the internet. “You get what you pay for” and “XBL for the win!” are common barbs that effectively kicks PSN users while they are down, and gloating about playing the newly released Mortal Kombat and Portal 2 on Xbox Live kicks dirt in their faces. I don’t agree with this practice at all, being the owner of both platforms and someone who uses both extensively, but this is the internet and it would be foolish not to expect it to some degree.

Sony has been vague at best when it comes to communicating progress and a possible ETA for the system to be back up, something that hints at serious problems and possibly a lengthy downtime. The original reason was cited as “maintenance” while the more official explanation was limited to “external intrusion”, suggesting that a hacker (or hackers) breached the network and the system was taken offline to minimize the risk of people’s personal information being compromised. That’s understandable, however it has not stopped gamers all over the world from lamenting about the loss of their beloved online service. It is unpleasant, inconvenient and admittedly coming at the worst time, with the aforementioned Mortal Kombat and Portal 2 being popular online titles, and shooters like Socom 4, Bad Company 2 and Black Ops still being highly active titles on the network. However, it’s important to understand that system outages do occur and they are sometimes unavoidable, as was evidenced by Xbox Live being down for a whopping 10 days back in 2007 and the PSN experiencing periodic maintenances outages that can last up to 48 hours. It’s a reality of the technical age we live in.

One advantage for me personally is that I tend to prefer single-player, story-driven games that rely minimally on multiplayer options. Getting friends together to play games is often difficult given everyone’s busy schedule, mine included, and playing online with strangers can be hair-pullingly annoying experience at the best of times. As such, I favour delving into a game on my own time and playing through it at my own pace, which is why platformers and role-playing games tend to be my genres of choice. I have nothing against multiplayer per se, but I often feel that game developers overlook single-player entirely or tack on a solo campaign to what is effectively an online-oriented title. When system outages occur or support for said title drops, fans of that particular game are out of luck. This is why I tend to champion games like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal of Honor, Socom 4 and Homefront significantly less than games like Bioshock, Borderlands, Uncharted and God of War. Some of those games do offer online options, but the single player experience doesn’t suffer in these titles as they do in the high profile shooters that are flooding the market. At the risk of sounding smug, this is why the PSN outage, while annoying, doesn’t impact me as much as it does others. Most of my gaming is done offline and I am willing to wait until the system is back up before delving back into multiplayer.

So for those who are seriously put out by the PSN outage and are going through gaming withdrawl, consider delving into some of the quality single-player titles that the Playstation 3 has to offer. Online deathmatches and spraying bullets into your circle of friends for hours on end is fun, but it’s not all that gaming has to offer. Get immersed in a good story-based game and enjoy it at your leisure, instead of following the “I only play online” mentality that many gamers today seem to have. The service will come back online eventually and you can get back to it, but take this as an opportunity to have some fun on your own.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nintendo's "Project Cafe" - The Next Wave Of Gaming Is Brewing

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen the first substantial hints of what we can expect from Nintendo’s next generation home console, codenamed “Project Café”, effectively the successor to the mammoth-selling Wii and Nintendo’s first truly high definition platform. What exactly “Project Café” refers to is anyone’s guess;, however it’s taken on the unofficial moniker of “Wii 2”. My forays thorough the online message boards, chat rooms and gaming forums has revealed a myriad of reactions, ranging from elation at the prospect of a new HD console to complete indifference or outright dismissal. Nintendo, like Apple, has always stood out from their competition by doing things a little different and they have built a solid brand as a result. So what does the future hold for this new system? Read on for my admittedly premature and completely speculative thoughts on the matter.

The Wii is perhaps the most polarizing console ever released, with legions of people who love and hate it in equal measure. The dead horse that represents these perceived strengths and weaknesses has been beaten to death, so I feel no need to go into that here. What I will say is that I thoroughly enjoy what the Wii has to offer and I play it often. Since the Wii became a homerun success by pushing towards a casual market with the abundance of sports, party and fitness games, it seems a no-brainer that Project Café will incorporate these kinds of games as well, which gives the Nintendo haters plenty to gripe about. What will change is the HD capabilities of the console, which opens this system to compete with the other consoles by supporting the big name cross-platform titles, something the Wii currently falls behind with. However, what Nintendo supporters will no doubt be pushing for above all else is the continuation of Nintendo’s winning streak with their franchise titles, such as the excellent Super Mario Galaxy games and the recent successes “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” and “Donkey Kong Country Returns”. The potential these titles have in HD is phenomenal and we can also see some Nintendo exclusives reaching new heights. Perhaps the next installment of The Conduit will be able to compete with the big guns in the first-person shooter genre, as opposed to being an interesting “also ran” that not many people will remember or go back to. The potential is there, that’s for sure.

The latest rumors also surround the unique controller that the console will have, which will allegedly combine the button layout and design of the standard controller for the other consoles with the touch tablet interface of the Nintendo DS. This could mean touch screen support for various games as well as the ability to play Nintendo DS games on your home console, which makes sense given how the Super Nintendo and the Gamecube had official attachments that allows you to play Gameboy and Gameboy Advance games through the console. Motion control support would be essential for supporting backwards compatibility with Wii titles, however the extent to which motion control will play a part in next gen titles is something we can only speculate on. Give how garden variety motion control is nowadays, Nintendo can’t rely in it as they did in 2007 when the concept was fairly new, so I don’t expect that we’ll see this functionality being as dominant in the next console as it currently is on the Wii.

So will the next Nintendo console be the success that the Wii has proven to be? That is will be successful is not a question, but I don’t think we will see the same industry shake up that we saw wit the Wii. Gaming has come a long way during the past five years and gamers are a little more jaded, so Project Café (or whatever it will end up being called) will need to satisfy two camps, the casual gamers who buy the Wii for it’s accessibility and the more seasoned gamers who favor the HD graphics and cinematic gameplay we currently get on the other consoles. The current speculated street date for the next Nintendo console is late 2012, while speculation on Sony and Microsoft’s next consoles places a street date of 2014 at the earliest, so this time buffer could put Nintendo at a big advantage. Every console has it’s first wave of early adopters and technophiles who line up for days to be first in line on release day, so not having to compete with other companies is a big plus.

My personal beliefs on what will make this console a success right out of the gate and what will sustain it against formidable competition from Sony and Microsoft is two fold. First, bringing their A-game to the system’s launch is crucial and something Nintendo has resisted doing in recent years. This is evidenced by the Wii and the Gamecube which didn’t see new Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Kibry games until well into the system’s life, and the 3DS that is only seeing a re-release of Ocarina of Time at this point. Having at least one new franchise title that really shows what the system is capable of will definitely get the hearts of Nintendo fans pumping. The second thing I feel will help is to correct certain deficiencies with the Wii that puts it at a disadvantage with other consoles, especially with their online service. Given that Nintendo is moving into the HD realm, online gameplay will be a greater concern and, let’s face it, the Wii is not known as a strong online console. The abysmal friend code system is a chore to wrangle with and finding active online games is often difficult, so this will definitely need to be addressed. Having static user IDs and a more user-friendly online interface is a must for the next generation. Also, love it or hate it, an achievement system that allows people to display the spoils of their online gaming will also up Nintendo’s stock in the eyes of gamers who are into that kind of thing. It seems logical to implement such a system since every other platform currently supports it.

In any case, anything Nintendo releases will definitely have it’s share of fans and detractors, but one cannot deny that they have become successful by being different and their brand loyalty with consumers remains strong. Since Nintendo is moving into the next phase and embracing HD, their need to be competitive and also complacent with gaming trends is higher than ever. All of the news currently is unofficial rumor that may or may not come to fruition, but there is a launch expected at the 2011 E3 and gamers will definitely be waiting with great anticipation for official news. I among them, since I’ve been a Nintendo fan for almost 25 years, through thick and thin, and I have never dislike a system they have put out. The prospect of Nintendo’s potential in the HD market is very exciting, and provided they listen to fans and correct the issues of past consoles, I see it as a great success.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My Favorite Movie: "12 Angry Men" (1957)

For any movie fan, picking a single favorite movie is a daunting task given the sheer volume of movies that are worthy of this distinction. Many pedestrian movie lovers and self-proclaimed film buffs will look to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list for guidance on the movies they *should* like, but let’s face it, taste in movies is the same as personal taste in anything else; it’s highly subjective and highly personal. As someone who has been in love with movies from a young age and has studied it academically, I have been exposed to every genre, era, style and nationality put to film, and have seen what is considered to be the very best, and consequently the very worst, that the filmmaking medium has to offer. So what is my favorite movie of all time, my “desert island” movie if you will? Sidney Lument’s 1957 masterpiece “12 Angry Men” and I shall explain further.

Everyone has a different idea of what makes a movie great, be it the acting, the writing, the action or the special effects. For me, the most compelling movies have the perfect combination of two things; powerful dialogue delivered by powerful acting. Dialogue that makes the characters believable and the acting ability of the cast that makes us care what happens to them in the end, this is what elicits the strongest emotional response from me when watching the movie. “12 Angry Men” has a deceptively premise, with 12 jury members deliberating over the murder trial of a young man who, by all appearance, is as guilty as a dog sitting next to a pile of poop. The jury, made up of people from various walks of life, must decide if the boy is innocent or guilty, the latter determination carrying a death sentence. In spite of this, eleven of the twelve jury members take barely a few seconds to declare the boy guilty, while the last man standing (Henry Fonda) has a crisis of conscience and decides to vote “not guilty”, leaving them to talk it out. This does not sit well with the other jury members, however he eventually helps get other jury members on his side. None of the jurors are ever referred to by name, but aspects of their lives and character are revealed over the course of the movie, clearly marking who is the protagonist, antagonist(s) and the in-betweeners are.

What makes “12 Angry Men” stand out to me is the fact that the entire movie is pushed forward by dialogue. Save for the court scene in the very beginning, the entire movie takes place in the jury deliberation room and there is no real action to speak of. Under these conditions, expository dialogue helps flesh out the plot for the viewer and we are given a clear picture of both their own stories and the overlapping story of the murder they are presiding over. Outside of Fonda, the eleven principal actors are first rate. Among others, E.G. Marshall plays a rational and level-headed stockbroker, Jack Warden plays a wisecracking salesman, Joseph Sweeny plays a wise elderly man who we underestimate from the beginning and George Voskovec plays a proud European immigrant with a strong appreciation for the American justice system. The two antagonists are equally compelling, with Lee J. Cobb playing a stubborn and opinionated father with an estranged son, and Ed Begley plays a garage owner with deeply rooter prejudice. Fonda’s character is the most rational of the bunch and he spends the entire movie trying, against the ridicule of others, to help them see his points and where they are wrong.

On the surface, this movie might not sound all that compelling, but the underlying themes really elevate the story and the characters. The most obvious theme is standing up for your beliefs even against insurmountable opposition. Fonda’s character is chastised from the beginning for doubting the defendant’s guilt, however he is unflappable in his belief that the boy might be innocent and he never wavers from this. The second, which is equally powerful, is separating personal prejudice from logic and truth. Cobb’s character is enraged at his son’s lack of desire to speak with him and he views the defendant in the same light, an ungrateful kid who deserves to be punished. Begley’s character likewise has a prejudicial view of today’s youth and he feels the boy is guilty because of the stereotypes that surround them, such as the tendency for drinking, stealing and fighting. Truth means little to these people because they have their own motives for wanting justice. The third theme I picked up on what that truth is not always appearance. The elderly man on the jury who turns out to be the wisest and most observant, the immigrant who may possess a better understanding of justice than the Americans on the jury and the defendant himself, an 18 year old boy who might not be the hooligan others think him to be. All of these characters appear as one thing on the surface but we discover something totally different as the movie progresses.

“12 Angry Men” started as a stage play in the early 1950’s and it has since seen three film adaptations and a recent touring stage production, however Sidney Lument’s 1957 film version remains the definitive version in my opinion. Is it the best movie ever made? Perhaps not, but there is no single grading criteria that can determine which film gets that distinction. For me, the true test of a great movie is one that grabs you, makes you care, makes you think, and it sustains its strength over repeated viewings. For me, “12 Angry Men” is the one film I have watched repeatedly and I am always enthralled as I was when I first saw it. With first-rate acting, stellar writing and themes and story motifs that still hold up today, this is a movie I recommend everyone see at least once in their lives.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Dragon Age II (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Bioware, along with Bethesda and Square Enix, has carved a reputation in the gaming world as one of the premier RPG developers, so expectations for Dragon Age II have been suitably high right up until launch. For all its strengths, I must admit that I was not a fan of Dragon Age: Origins and I was less enthused going into the sequel, however there are games that represent a pleasant surprise and I am happy to say that this is one of them. Fans of Dragon Age: Origins will scoff at some of the games made to the gameplay and story mechanics, but for me it hit an RPG sweet spot of sorts and I am very happy to recommend this title to other gamers.

Bucking a common trend in RPGs, Dragon Age II begins after the events of the game and the story is told mainly through flashbacks. You assume the role of Hawke, a male or female protagonist you can assign the role of a warrior, mage or rogue to at the beginning of the game. Forced to flee your home of Ferelden because of the darkspawn, you and your party wind up in the bustling metropolis of Kirkwall. As a refugee, your rise from noble warrior to champion is a long and arduous one and much of the game follows this storyline. During the early hours of the game, you recruit various members into your party, each contributing their own skills and abilities to the effort. After spending a year working in servitude in Kirkwall, the story begins proper with your efforts to escape the slums and ally yourself with the Dwarves to undertake a dangerous mission into the Deep Roads, which turns into a double-cross and the events in the game take may unexpected twists and turns from there. To give any more away would be venturing into spoilers, but suffice it to say that he story is a long and emotional journey that will resonate with you long after the end credits roll. Some RPG clichés exist here, but the story and the narrative structure make Dragon Age II an investment in time well worth making.

The gameplay in Dragon Age II is weighted heavily towards action RPG mechanics, with button commands doing most of the work in battle. Each member of your party has their own skills and abilities, and you will quickly find that having a balanced team of rogues, warriors and mages is essential to survival. Warriors are skilled are melee combat, mages are great for distance and magic attacks, and rogues are skilled at picking locks, opening chests and disarming traps. Each member of your party has skills that can be upgraded when you level up, either via an auto level-up function for casual gamers or a manual system that allows you to micromanage what your party members can do. The battles can be either complex or simple depending on your preference. You can assign abilities to specific buttons and just mash away, or use the intuitive in-game menus to assign specific directives to your party members and take a more tactical approach to combat. How much damage you and your enemies take, as well as the availability of helpful items like health potions and injury kits, depends on the difficulty selected. Whether you’re a casual gamer looking to kill a few hours or a hardcore RPG lover out for a challenge, Dragon Age II definitely has you covered on both fronts.

The first 10 hours of the game large revolves around various quests in Kirkwall and the surrounding areas, which are accessible via a map that comes up whenever you leave a given area. Through this map, you have the ability to fast-travel to various locations in an instant, which is a great help in keeping you from getting lost but this might put off RPG fans who prefer the free-roaming abilities of Oblivion. Despite the impressive world you are in, the game feels very linear and the map and travel system makes it impossible to get lost, but also limits exploration and discovery that some fans crave in a game like this. As such, Dragon Age II will feel more streamlined and consequently dumbed-down to fans of more complex RPGs, but this also opens the game up to the more casual gamers that would rather follow the story and not get overwhelmed. The quests themselves are nicely varied and often broken up into several parts, so those who are spurned by monotonous fetch quests and pointless side-missions in other RPGs won’t be too put out here. Not every quest is fun and there are moments where certain quests drag on, but more often than not the quests are fun and engaging.

Graphically, Dragon Age II is neither a leap forward or a step back for the RPG genre. The world is impressive in scope and everything looks great, but there was nothing in this game that made me pause and admire it. The character animation is stiff and wooden at times and the framerate goes all over the place in hectic battles, so people looking to nitpick the visuals will definitely find a lot to gripe about here. Where Dragon Age II shines is in its audio, with both the voice acting and orchestral musical score being first rate. Using the radial conversation system found in the Mass Effect games, you have the option to tailor your responses to suit your mood and the situation. You can either be overly agreeable, a sarcastic twit or a rude bastard, and the benefits of all three responses can vary throughout the game. Being overly agreeable can lead to bad choices, while being rude to everyone also brings about some missed opportunities. Regardless of your choices, each scenario is acted out with superb voice acting and it does a great job at bringing the story to life in a way that is lacking in many RPGs.

Despite being less than enthused by Dragon Age: Origins, I am actually surprised at how fun and accessible Dragon Age II has proven to be. Despite being more steamlined and linear than it’s predecessor, this is a still and fun and challenging RPG that will keep you busy for several dozen hours, but the time taken to fully upgrade your characters and the various outcomes that your actions determine definitely encourage multiple playthroughs. If you’re green to the RPG genre and are looking or a good entry title, this is a good place to start as it is complex enough for you to feel accomplished but it rarely overwhelms. If you are a hardcore RPG fan and are thinking twice because of the linear nature of the game, I still recommend checking it out because there is a great story here and one that, if nothing else, will provide some good fantasy escapism to tide you over until Elder Scrolls V comes out.

Rating: 8.5/10