The Red Ring of Death

The Red Ring of Death

Photo by Andrew Burgess – CC licensed

22nd November 2005 – the day that the XBox 360 launched in the UK, and the day that I queued up at 7am in the morning to pick up my lovely new Premium 360.

Fast forward nearly three years and it was still going strong. Having given me hundreds and hundreds of hours of gaming pleasure, as well as acting as our main DVD player. It had a camera, an HD-DVD drive, two wireless controllers and a couple of headsets. Despite watching my friend’s boxes die a death along the way, my trusty white box kept on going.

Time, I thought, to treat it to an update. The New XBox Experience was a comprehensive UI update launched by Microsoft on the 19th November. As I happened to be working at home that day I turned the ‘box on and…

My time had come – the dreaded Red Ring of Death timed perfectly to mess up my day.

But, in fact, it was timed almost perfectly. Under pressure due to a huge number of faulty consoles, Microsoft had extended the warranty period of the console to three years. Those who noted the previously stated dates will work out that mine failed a grand total of three days before it’s third birthday!

So, with a call to Microsoft to arrange a repair (very simple, they even handled the fact that I’d since moved from the UK to Ireland with no problem) I was happy, if slightly disappointed. Nevertheless, seen as we were without a DVD player now it seemed like and excellent time to pick up a Sony BDP-S350 Blu-Ray player (about which I will probably blog later)

The only problem now was that UPS had not yet bothered to come and pick up the broken XBox, which was probably a good thing as I’ve not yet bothered to get a box to put it in either. However, figuring that I’d likely not see one back any time before Christmas, I wondered about the possibility of buying a replacement.

The only issue being that I didn’t really want to pay for one. However, a quick scout around the house for tradeable items and I ended up taking the following down to the local Game store:

  • A slim PS2 which hasn’t been turned on for over a year
  • Singstar, two mics and a couple of extra Singstar discs for the PS2
  • Buzz the music game for the PS2
  • A couple of other PS2 games
  • Guitar Hero 2 for XBox (with guitar)
  • A variety of XBox 360 games I’ve finished or given up on, including: COD4, PGR3&4, Test Drive Unlimited, Fight Night 3 and a couple of others

That lot, plus €5 on my Game reward card saw me pick up a brand new XBox 360 Arcade, with the game Mirror’s Edge for the princely sum of €1.78. Not bad!

Sticking my existing hard disk drive onto the Arcade was simple and turning it on, it started to update itself with the NXE. Two minutes later and I was in business!

Unfortunately, the new ‘box isn’t one of the latest Jasper motherboard designs with a cooler running GPU, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I have no idea when those will start appearing in Ireland (or indeed where) However, the way I see it is that the Premium will either have it’s MoBo replaced, or the whole box repaired, so when that eventually comes back it’s just a case of deciding which one to keep and which one to eBay!

What’s more important is that I now have an XBox back, and a new Blu-Ray player to boot 🙂

Xbox Live and moving country – don’t

Whilst the kids in Redmond have done a great job in turning XBox Live into the best console online gaming community, the backroom staff who support it in terms of billing need a kick up the proverbial.

Since moving to Ireland from the UK I’ve not got around to updating my XBox Live account. It is registered against my UK credit card, which gets used whenever my membership gets renewed or I buy stuff from the Marketplace. My old card has expired and in any case I no longer want to use a UK card for such purposes. Hence, yesterday I attempted to update my details on XBox Live. Go to change of address, enter new details, but there is nowhere to change your country. Hmm. Try on the web at billing.microsoft.com – again you can edit everything but the country. Phone up XBox Live support and speak to a person who puts me on hold for 5 minutes to come back and tell me that it can’t be done. Proclaim surprise that nobody designing the billing system ever considered that people may move (but then again I expect it was designed by and primarily for North Americans) Ask to speak to a supervisor: “Yes sir, please take down this reference number and give it to the person after I transfer you” Erm, so you can’t even flow my details along with my call, thought that was a basic piece of call-center functionality these days. Whilst on hold for 10 minutes for the supervisor I do some googling and (unsurprisingly) find loads of blog entries about the same problem. Figure that it probably isn’t worth spending any more money on hold to the UK (or at least the virtual UK if you know what I mean) to speak to the supervisor who may never pick up.

It appears that the only way to legitimately move countries with XBox live is to cancel your account and start a new one. The problem here Bill is that I’ve invested time and effort into building up a social community with my current gamertag (which by the way I’ve had since XBox Live was in beta five years ago and I don’t appear to have received any of the free marketplace points you were meant to give me on the anniversary…) and not insignificant time registering my progress on games in the form of gamerpoints. I’m not going to throw all that away. So, it appears that I now have to rely on buying pre-paid vouchers whenever I am in the UK so that I have a stock of marketplace points available should I actually want to buy anything from your service. Oh, and when it comes around to time to renew my Gold subscription I’ll have to make sure I have a voucher for that as well.

Now you are launching things like the video store, encouraging me to spend more money with you. Would be nice if you could actually make it easy for me. Sorry, I thought this was the globalised 21st Century. Obviously I was wrong.

EA Game Face

As mentioned in my previous entry, I’ve been playing the Electronic Arts Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 game on my XBox 360 since the weekend. One feature of the game is “Game Face” which allows you to model your career golf character on your own face. Now face modelling in video games isn’t new, for instance 2K Games’ Oblivion had an extensive modelling editor which took the approach of using sliders to alter every part of a model head to match your own. The FaceGen engine used behind this has a demo downloadable app with which you can plug in a photo (or for best results a couple of photos) and it would create the 3D model for you. It was then just a simple case of copying the slider settings manually into Oblivion to create a pretty realistic likeness to yourself.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 takes this much further though. The Game Face engine is part of the game code, and allows you to use one or two photos to create the 3D model directly. Naturally, I spent a good amount of time playing around with this before I even swung a club in anger in the game itself!

My first attempt was with my XBox 360 Vision Camera, a 640 x 480 web cam that plugs directly into the console. I took a head-on and side profile shot of myself, taking care to make sure that the lighting on my face was even (the 32″ reflector from my camera gear came in handy here!) The game then processes the photos to create the 3D model. It takes about ten minutes if you use a single photo, or up to about 20 minutes if you use two, the latter giving a more accurate render. EA keep you up to date on progress with an amusing set of status updates. So, here’s the result of the Vision cam render…

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Overall, very good, and certainly better than you could hope to achieve using a traditional slider approach. It isn’t perfect though, so I broke out my Canon 400d and took some proper photos of myself:

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(It was a bad hair day, and the morbid expression was suggested as being best for the rendering!)

In order to get the game to use these photos, you have to upload them to the EA website. Now this proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences on the web I’ve ever had. Firstly I had to register. Now I was already registered for the EA web site, and it knew about my XBox Live gamertag, but apparantly this wasn’t enough. Getting the correct registration involved constant back and forth between three different EA sites, and lots of patience and experimentation. Finally, though I got to the page where I could upload my photos… except it wouldn’t let me. Apparantly their servers were very busy and I should try later. Checking various forums it appears that they’ve pretty much been like this since the game was released three weeks or so ago. Finally a day later I managed to get them uploaded whilst the US were asleep. Once I got started it was pretty painless. The web app does a good job of helping you optimize the photos ready for the rending by zooming them to fit a profile overlay.

From that point it is back to the XBox to go through the Game Face process again, this time telling it to download the images from the EA server. This was painless, and the render process started. 20 minutes or so later, and I have one of those WTF moments when this appears on my HD TV:

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Now that is pretty damn near photorealistic. The Nokia N80 camera phone photo from my TV screen doesn’t do it justice. Let’s put it this way, I got Lana to look at it and she freaked out when a bald, blinking me stared back at her from the TV!

The final stage was to “dress” myself with a hairstyle, beard, clothes, etc. etc. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, which in this case is how the avatar appears in-game. Here’s are some more (poor) camera phone shots:

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All in all, Game Face is pretty awesome and it is quite a surreal experience to see yourself on the screen. I can only see more games taking this sort of approach to give added realism. Imagine how this technology could enhance an adventure or FPS game. Of course, the real-time 3D graphics in a golf game are much simpler and less dynamic than a typical FPS, but it is probably only a matter of time and processing power.

Too many games to play

I’m amazed by the sheer volume and quality of games coming out recently, or due in the run-up to Christmas. Having owned an XBox 360 from day one I don’t remember any period in which so many quality titles have been published or are due soon. After effectively ignoring the 360 for about four months whilst we moved over to Dublin and then had a wedding to organise, I’ve been firing it up over the past week or so and began to start reading the likes of Eurogamer to catch up with what’s going on.

Some of the motivation to switch the ‘Box on came from a couple of my work colleagues discovering Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2. This culminated in a session last Friday where we plugged in two guitar controllers for a bit of a rock-duel. I started to play GH2 before we moved over, but finally got around to completing it on medium level in preparation. Another game which has been gathering dust was Forza 2. I’ve just not got into this as much as I was expecting though, mainly because there’s just too much else to play.

The weekend saw me buy Bioshock (10/10 on Eurogamer) and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 (8/10) So far I’ve played about 2 hours of Bioshock which is thoroughly awesome in terms of graphics, sound, atmosphere and just about everything else. It carries the mark of any good game in that it gets terribly hard to put down. I’ve dabbled with golf games before, but the fact that I’ve started to play the game for real has caused me to get more into Tiger this time around. The way the gameplay is structured means you no longer arbitrarily allocate points to particular skills but rather your golfer improves in an organic fashion the more you play. This makes it seem more realistic and means you can’t just go in and quickly build up a player capable of winning the majors. Another simply awesome thing about the game is the “game face” functionality, but I’ll blog about that in more detail later.

Of course, midnight tonight sees the arrival of Halo 3 (another 10/10 Eurogamer review, put that into the context that they rather controversially gave the original Halo 8/10) I’ll probably hold off of getting it until I have Bioshock out of the way. I’ve never got into multiplayer FPS games so have only really played Halo for the single player campaign.

Then there’s the list of other stuff either out and attracting my attention or on the way:

  • Skate – a 9/10 review and finally a Tony Hawk beater? I’m a big fan of THPS games, so am seriously tempted by this
  • Project Gotham Racing 4 – Again, huge fan of the series and this one will be a no-brainer purchase
  • FIFA 2008 and Pro Evo 2008 – I’ve never really got into console footy games, but they are still both major releases
  • Guitar Hero 3 – The leaked tracklist looks awesome. Knights of Cydonia anyone?
  • Mass Effect – If it is anywhere near as good as Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic then I’m sold

Then on top of this there are the games which don’t particularly tickle my fancy but which will still be important and popular releases, such as Sega Rally, Half Life 2: Episode 2, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty 4 and probably more that I’m not aware of.

Have gamers ever had it so good? Even those foolhardy PS3 owners will be able to play some of these 😉

Brain Training

My copy of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day for the Nintendo DS arrived yesterday. The DS has been a little neglected of late, as Lana and myself both got bored of looking after out pet Nintendogs. The poor little mutts are probably flee infested by now. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if they have run away!

The premise of Brain Age is to stimulate your brain into action through a series of activities such as simple arithmetic, reading out loud and other cognitive tests. It starts out with a Stroop test from which it works out your "Brain Age", the ideal age being 20. Mine came out at 60, and Lana at 52. Each day you can then attempt a series of short activities, the number and variety of which increase the more you play. At first there are a couple of arithmetic tasks, a reading task which counts the syllables/second you can speak and a memory task.

Over time it charts your performance at each task. You can also retake the Stroop test to recalculate your brain age. Up to four people can record their results and compare against each other. Lana was quite chuffed that she was faster and more accurate at the mental arithmetic tests than me!

The UK version of the game also includes 100 Sudoku puzzles (you can download more via the Nintendo Wifi connection in games shops) and the interface the game presents for solving these is really quite nifty. Overall it's the kind of game that Nintendo are excellent at producing, and which proves that the DS is really capable of providing a rich and fun experience despite its relative lack of power compared to the Playstation Portable.

Now, I must resist buying a DS Lite… The fact that it still only supports WEP and not WPA will probably be enough to put me off.