Monday, February 22, 2010


I bemoan the deficiency of real science-fiction in the theater these days. Too often, what passes for sci-fi are action movies with a veneer of futurism. We are served shallow depictions of impossible futures which blatantly violate known laws of physics and sociology; they are fast-paced, effects laden fantasies. They may be exciting, they may be fun, but I can't in all honesty consider them sci-fi.

Moon is sci-fi.

I missed Moon when it was first released this summer. It came out with little fanfare and was only released to select theaters; by the time I had heard of it, it was already gone. Fortunately, it made enough of a splash that Sony Pictures had to release it to DVD; a rare honor for an short-running independent film.

Moon is a story based around character and atmosphere. Science-fiction aficionados will appreciate the care that went into the setting (although as always, I have a few quibbles about the space suit in vacuum; it should bubble out more rather than cling to the actor's skin, but that's a minor nitpick). The sets are crafted in the style of 2001 or Silent Running; a stark contrast of utilitarian futurism with the lived-in look of Outland or Alien. There are no aliens in Moon; this is a story set in the realm of the High Frontier technology, not in the super-sciences of Star Trek.

But Moon is not about technology or science; it is a low-key drama about the fall and rise of a man. Sam Rockwell elegantly plays the role of Sam Bell as he struggles with the travail of his isolation on the far side of the Moon, and later with questions of who he is and what he strives to achieve. Kevin Spacey voices the role of the robotic Gerty; perfectly unemotional except for a few simple emoticons, he channels the spirit of Douglas Rain (the voice of Hal in 2001). Never afraid to move at its own pace,  the movie avoids all the predictable plots and moves on its own unique and unexpected path. It mixes mystery and suspense and drama with the wonder and vastness we normally expect from science-fiction.

Moon is science fiction as it ought to be made; it is the sort of science-fiction we geeks can be proud of. Star Wars and its ilk (of which I am a great fan) are impressive light-shows, but ultimately pabulum that do little to improve the genre. Moon is proof that the category of movies consisting solely of man-eating alien monsters or wise-cracking, laser-gun toting action-heroes. It is a genre capable of standing on its own with the greats of classic fiction.And for all its entertaining quality, it is the last that makes me appreciate Moon most of all.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Aliens vs Predator

The Aliens vs Predator games have always had mixed appeal for me. The original had wonderful atmosphere but I never enjoyed the game-play, nominally because it had poor story but in truth because it so cheerfully kicked my ass. The 2001 sequel had a stronger (if somewhat convoluted) story and I appreciated the game-play more (read: it was easier) but -aside from a precious few moments- lacked the terrifying atmosphere that made the franchise so memorable. And what of the 2010 reboot?

Like the previous games, the series divides itself into three campaigns; one for each species (Human, Predator and Alien). The human campaign was suitably terrifying; I was vulnerable prey running from deadly and hungry non-terrestrial life. Unfortunately, my deadly array of weaponry even the odds somewhat, minimizing the fear... at least until ammo started to run low. But it was by far the best of the three campaigns.

The Alien and Predator campaigns were less satisfying; they were just too deadly to provide much of a challenge.  All three of the campaigns also suffered from very linear levels, although this was less obvious with the Aliens and Predators, who could leap across wide areas with ease, which opened up the maps somewhat; the Humans were limited to tight corridors. The AI was largely disappointing too, especially with regards to the "charge directly into my gun-sights" Aliens. It cheated too; the AI always seemed to know exactly where I was. It didn't make the monsters anymore effective in combat, but it was disconcerting that -even playing as a cloaked Predator and hidden behind walls - the AI still directed fire in my direction. The story was improved over the 1999 game but was poorly paced and ended predictably. And the game was incredibly short; about two hours per campaign.

But for all its shortcomings, the old-school game-play of Aliens vs Predator was a welcome change of pace. It might not have "wowed" me, but neither did it entirely disappoint. It may have been run-of-the-mill as far as design, but it used the iconic franchise well and it was entertaining to boot.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ubisoft's DRM, Our Shame

So, there's a lot of uproar about Ubisoft's recently announced DRM. The game developer released the facts about its new copy protection methods last week and to say gamers were not taken with their scheme would be a modest understatement. Many developers have required customers to activate their products online before they could play the game; Ubisoft has taken it a step further; not only do they require that initial activation, you must be online to play the game. Worse, lose your network connection, even momentarily, and you are booted from the game and your progress since your last save-point is lost.

As stated earlier, gamers are outraged. The usual objections have been raised: not everybody has broadband, ISPs are notoriously unreliable, this violates first-sale doctrine, there are privacy and security issues, and DRM does nothing to stop pirates anyways. Similarly, the usual calls to action are also being offered: Internet petitions, people are swearing not to buy the game, and threats are being made to pirate the title to teach Ubisoft a lesson.

Meanwhile, I just can't get all that upset about it all.

Mind you, I hold Ubisoft's latest tactic against copyright violators in no more favor than any other gamer. Personally, after upsetting customer so much with first Starforce and later SecuROM, I would have thought that the publisher might have learned its lesson; certainly, it seemed to be moving in the right direction with the DRM-free release of Prince of Persia. Apparently not.

I'm unhappy about Ubisoft's decision and, like many, have decided that any games poisoned with this copy-protection mechanism is not worth buying. But I can't help but feel that the problem isn't with Ubisoft, but with us gamers.

Oh, not for the expected reason; not because so many people illegally copy software. Sure, that is a cause of this current crisis, but there was rampant software copying twenty years ago and software publishers managed to survive despite a lack of online activation. So it's hardly fair to lay the blame entirely on piracy for Ubisoft's decision to add these onerous requirements on its customers in 2010.

What then led the publisher to this point? We did, but showing our acceptance to this sort of thing by buying games that had similar restrictions to its use. It didn't matter if it was SecuROM online activation, or Steam, or Stardock's Impulse; it's all the same. Step by step the publishers have been moving in this direction, and we customers haven't done any more than whine as we willingly moved in the very direction we swore we never would.

Oh sure; we had our reasons. Steam demanded online activation, forced upgrades on you, tracked your online activity and prevented you from reselling the game, but dammit, surely we couldn't be expected to not play Half Life 2? Bioshock used online activation that was limited to five installations (and, initially, no way to de-authorize the product) in addition to a disc-check, but the hype for that game was enormous; how could we mere mortals resist buying the game? Modern Warfare 2 did the same, plus they took away hosted servers, but obviously the billion dollars we poured into EA's pockets indicated we must have had some reason to ignore the fact we were getting screwed. We have, collectively, shown the publishers that despite all our howls of protest, we really don't care about DRM. Why then are we surprised that they continue to tighten the screws on us with every new release?

I'm not innocent of any of this either; I bought Half Life 2, I bought Bioshock. In fairness to myself, I did resist for a long while; I was absolutely opposed to Steam when it was released. I was not only opposed to what it did then, but what it meant for the future of the industry. I argued and warned people that if they bought Half Life 2 today, knowing full well that it required online activation, they shouldn't be surprised when other publisher's followed suit. I posted on various forums and even went so far as to write to Valve regarding my dissatisfaction. But I admit, a year later when it became evident that the community had spoken overwhelmingly in favor of Steam I became a convert. Not happily, but willingly because the choice was clear. Gamers didn't care about DRM, so publishers were going to keep using it on new games; I could either abandon my hobby or accept the turn of events. Could I have held my ground? Of course... but it wouldn't have made any difference.  So I caved, well aware that I was now a part of the very problem I had once railed against.

And so here we are, in 2010; Ubisoft has upped the ante with its new onerous copy protection.  I am not surprised, and neither should be you. They aren't to blame; the fault lies entirely with us. And while the solution lies with us too - we could all agree not to buy of Ubisoft's games (and, as important, not pirate them either) -  history shows us how unlikely this is to happen.  We had a chance to avoid this future five years ago; we chose a different path. Together we've made the bed we're being forced to lie in; let us not cry about it and shake our fists at Ubisoft.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bioshock 2

It was inevitable that a financial success like the original Bioshock would get a sequel. I wasn't overwhelmed with the first game; I thought it average at best, despite some occasionally interesting architecture and some neat water effects. The second in the series is more of the same... or perhaps less. But either way, it is a better game than the first.

It's more of the same because it returns to the setting -the underwater city of Rapture- presented in the first game. The architecture of Rapture was one of the highlights of the original and it's no less stunning in the sequel. The art deco construction is gorgeous, although thoroughly unrealistic. The underwater setting plays more of a role this time out as well. Not only do you actually get to traverse the open seabed this time (unfortunately, thoroughly linear slogs with very little to do beyond gawk at the well-rendered sea life) but the oceanic environment makes more of an impact on the actual city as well. Coral and anemones are everywhere, as is water; Rapture is a damp, leaking ruin and you never forget the crushing tons of water around you.

The weapons and monsters from the former game make a return as well; insane gene-spliced
citizens scrounging a living from the wreckage, hulking protector "Big Daddies" and their helpless "Little Sister" charges populate the city. There are a few new monsters, the most notable of which are the "Big Sisters" who incorporate the endurance of the "Big Daddies" with incredible speed and agility. Your weapons are mix of scrounged up guns and the "Big Daddies'" iconic drill-hand, and super-power "plasmids". There's some variation here from the original game, but mostly your weapon sets are identical.

Where the game differs is mostly in game-play. The first was "the spiritual successor" to the classic "System Shock" action-RPG and itself tried to include role-playing aspects into the run-n-gun game-play. Bioshock 2 distances itself from this a bit; the plot is far more linear and predetermined, although there are still two endings depending on your actions throughout the story. Unlike the original game, in Bioshock 2 you will never have more than a single goal to complete at any one time; the levels are fairly straightforward and rarely do you need to backtrack. Although some might bemoan this loss of freedom, it is actually one of the sequel's strengths compared to the poorly paced original; the action maintains an intensity that was lost with the haphazard wandering in the first game.

Still, beyond the impressive visuals and improved pacing, Bioshock 2 doesn't overwhelm a player with exceptional game-play. The game's linearity does not offer much in the way of exploration and, while architecturally appealing, it lacks any truly impressive set-pieces. You are offered a large variety of weapons and upgrades, but for the most part you will find yourself relying on two or three favorites with little incentive to experiment. The vaunted ability to use the environment itself as a weapon remains, but is largely limited to scattered pools of flammable oil and electricity-conducting pools of water; it is little more than the traditional "exploding barrel" in new form.

The combat is distressingly ordinary as well. Splicers and Big Daddies, the mainstay of Rapture's army, tend to simply charge at you (they sometimes duck behind cover). The new "Big Sisters" are more intelligent foes, utilizing the environmental hazards against you, but they leap about so disconcertingly that combat with them ends up being little less than frenzied mouse clicking. After all the build-up of these new enemies, both with the pre-release hype and in the game itself (initially there was only to be a single Big Sister fought in recurring battles throughout the game), it was disconcerting to realize they were as disposable as all the rest of the monsters. Occasionally you are tasked to defend the helpless "Little Sister" NPCs, which results in an intense but not particularly involving battle against re-spawning bad-guys. And you still end up only using one or two weapons.

A few problems degrade the experience. The limited field of vision is further hampered by a HUD which includes the border of your deep-sea diving helmet; it's only a tiny percentage of the screen but when peripheral vision is already so limited I cursed the loss of even more. Although minimized when compared to the first game, the mini-games to "hack" various devices still aren't any fun, especially after repeating them for the thousandth time. More disconcertingly, there was no apparent way to remap weapons or powers to specific hot-keys; whichever you picked up first was locked to hot-key one, and so forth. That resulted in all the useful weapons being mapped to keys on the far end of the keyboard.

Worst of all, the story wasn't particularly involving, the characters lacked any emotional appeal and the end game -despite the threat of an "ohmigod, the clock is running and we're all going to die" timer, was a tiresome slog through waves of enemies. Too, he developers also expect the player to have some familiarity with the setting as much of the backstory that was so carefully developed in the original game goes unexplained in the sequel. Understanding how Rapture came about or what the Big Daddies are isn't necessary to finish the game, but it is core to the game's atmosphere. The endings (there are two) are completely predictable as well, with the usual chocie of "good" or "bad" depending on your activities during the game. But there's no real surprise either way.

Still, Bioshock is a better game than the original, even if it still sometimes lets its style take precedence over story and game-play. The combat is marginally more interesting, the quest is better focused, the architecture is still wonderful and the water effects remain impressive. It may be damning the game with faint praise to only say that Bioshock 2 is a superior game compared to the first (which, as I said, I felt was wildly over-hyped) but given my low expectations I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly a classic and it may lack in innovation but it is competent, well designed product.That's saying something, anyway.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Toolkit #2 - IrfanView

My "toolkit", when it comes to computers, is a handful of software applications I just can't live without. They are some of the first applications I install on a new computer, and I carry them everywhere on a thumb-drive so if I have to work on a strange computer, I'm not without my favorite utilities.

Irfanview is one of these cherished applications. There are a lot of free image-viewing utilities available these days (Google's own Picassa is probably the best known), and modern operating systems offer built-in image preview. So why the oddly named Irfanview?

Because it is fast.  I double-click on a file and the application is instantly open. The program is extremely resource light; with all the optional plug-ins and skins loaded, it still only takes 4MB. It opens virtually every image file out there, too. CAD files, raw camera files, cursors, media files; more than once a friend has called upon me to open a strange image file he's received that his application can't recognize. But IrfanView could. Better still, it can write in most formats as well. Many formats it can read natively; others require a small plug-in available free from Irfanview's website.

Although not designed as an image editor, the software can be used to tweak pictures; it has the usual bevy of options to crop, re-size, sharpen  color balance and otherwise adjust the image. Unless you are heavy into graphic design, Irfanview will almost certainly meet your needs for image handling.

There are a few areas where Irfanview is weak. The first is minor: its default icons, used when you associate images to the program, are atrocious. They look embarrassingly amateur and are a bad first impression for the program. However, the lack of support for any cloud-based image stores (Picassa Web Albums, Flickr, Photobucket or a host of others) may be a serious disadvantage for some users. Personally, I'm not willing to stick all my personal images onto the insecure cloud and prefer to keep them on local storage so I'm fine with this "missing" feature but I can understand if others consider this a problem. It is one of the reasons IrfanView loads so quickly, though. Finally, it lacks any real integration with the operating system.

But its speed and tiny footprint more than make up for any perceived disadvantages. It's free software and frequently updated with new features. I expect to be using Irfanview for years to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The DRM Bill of Rights

This is an article I originally posted about a year ago after EA first announced it's "five installs only" limit for the upcoming release of Spore. Backlash from that announcement has made EA wary of such heavy-handed copy-protection, but -as evidenced by Ubisoft's recent announcement- not all publishers seem to have learned the lesson. 
DRM is all in the news now, what with EA's bungled handling of Spore and general gamer dissatisfaction with its SecuRom copy-protection. Okay, maybe the mainstream media hasn't picked it up, but it got mentioned on MTV so its obviously gone beyond something just the geeks and hard-code gamer crowd care about.

Now, I generally try to stay out of DRM conversations but the following idea has been percolating in the back of my head for a few days so I thought I'd share it. Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, recently suggested a "Gamer Bill of Rights" that beautifully constructed an perfect world where paying customers weren't treated  like dirt . This is a very wide-ranging list of some very good -but hard to  implement- ideas. My idea is related, but a bit more limited in scope.

I want a DRM Bill of Rights, an agreement between Publishers and End-Users about what their DRM software can and cannot do. It needs to be palatable to both the Publishers - who want to protect their copyright and investment in the software - and to the users, who want to be able to use software they paid for not only today but in the future.

Let me be straight on this subject: I hate DRM and especially online  activations. I think DRM is invasive, anti-consumer, bad for the culture, and ultimately an expensive, useless waste. It doesn't work and all it does is interfere with paying customers while the people it hopes to stop -the pirates- don't have to deal with it at all. But, like it or not, it's here to stay. At best we can hope to mitigate the damage it causes.

So, below, I present the first draft of the DRM Bill of Rights. I offer it to the newsgroup for discussion, amendment and dissemination. I encourage you to pass it on to your favorite web-forums and post it on your 'blogs. You don't have to use it verbatim; you don't even have to attribute it to me (although it'd be nice if you mentioned me as the originator of the idea). You may disagree with certain ideas I have below, or think certain concepts need strengthening. Feel free to add to or subtract from the list. But the idea is to hammer out  something both parties -t he publishers and the users - can agree to rather than just create a bitch-list of things we hate about DRM. The publishers spent a lot of time and money developing the software; it is understandable that they want to protect the investment. We need to provide them a way to do that without going so far as to interfere with our own rights.

So, here it is. Take it away, gamers.

A Balanced Agreement of Rights Between Publisher and Customer
I. The Right of Free Use: If you limit number of installations, the Publisher MUST provide a "revoke" tool.

What it entails for the Publisher
The Publisher is allowed to limit the software's installation to one or more computers based on their hardware configuration and registered online ("Activation"). They must provide a free stand-alone tool, preferably on the same distribution medium, that the User can use to de-authorize previously activated computers ("De-activation"). The total number of  Activations and De-activations must be unlimited in number, but can be  limited as to number of uses in a particular time period.
How It Would Work
When you install a game, the software must be activated online as is  the standard practice today. However, what this Right provides is a method for the User to deactivate an installation so the software can be transferred to another computer, either due to hardware failure,  upgrade or resale. This tool needs to be provided free to the User, preferably on the CD/DVD or other install medium provided at purchase (or downloaded if the game is purchased through digital distribution) and must be stand-alone. Deactivation would require proof of ownership (the CD in the drive and the CD-key should be enough), and would display a list of all computers authorized to run that software. The User could then select  the computers to be de-activated. Note that this tool does NOT have to be run on the Authorized computer, or require the Authorized software to be installed. In order to prevent misuse of this tool, the Publisher can allow only a certain amount of Activations / De-activations per day/week/month, but cannot limit the total amount of De-activations.
One of the biggest worries I hear about online Activations is the worry about how to De-activate the software. Some users wonder about  being able to replay the game many years -and many computer upgrades-  down the line, others fear that unexpected computer failure might lock  them out of a game they paid for, and still others wonder about how activations might effect resale value. This Right provides a fair balance between the Publisher's need to limit the number of people using a game at anyone time while still providing the Users the flexibility they desire.

II. The Right of Activation: If the Publisher requires Activation, they must provide some assurance of method to bypass this should the method of Activation no longer be available.

What it entails for the Publisher
The Publisher is allowed to require the User to Activate their software through the method of their choice. But if that method should no longer be available (be it due to technical or financial reasons), they must ensure that the User can continue to use the software they paid for even although the Activation service is no longer running. This assurance can take many forms; a legal promise to release a patch should the Activation Servers be taken down;  a waiving of the Publisher's rights to take legal action of any third-party who rights software to allow the same; or a universal "key" that is held in escrow, to be released only should the Activation servers go down, that allows installation and use of the Software without Activation.
How It Would Work
Basically, the Publisher needs to provide the User with a "back-door" -either legal or technical- that they can use to bypass the Activation requirement should the Publisher chose to no longer allow Activations, either because it is costing the Publisher too much money to maintain the activation servers or because they are no longer in business. The best way for the User is if the Publisher has a patch or some sort of universal serial number that allows the User to bypass Activation; this patch/key is held in escrow until the Activation Servers go down and is then released to the general public. Of course, this may dramatically compromise the usefulness of the DRM, so other methods can be used, for example: providing source-code and funds that can be released to pay a programming team to successfully develop a patch after the fact. Alternately (but least palatable to the User) the Publisher can simply promise to release code and not prosecute should a third-party (e.g., a "cracker") want to develop some method to bypass the Activation (but, note, they must provide enough code to make this a possibility).
The second biggest worry I hear about Activation is this: what if I want to play the game in ten years and I can't Activate it because the Publisher dropped the servers, or went out of business? This Right provides for that eventuality, by legally binding the Publisher to allowing some sort of method so the User can keep using the software should the Publisher no longer want to support it.

III. The Right to Privacy: Any data-collection from these activation services will be opt-out (except as what is required for Activation), will not be matched to any personally identifiable information and it absolutely, positively will not be shared with anyone.

What it entails for the Publisher 
The Publisher is allowed to collect information from the User's computer solely for the purpose of identifying him for Activation so that the software can only be used by Authorized computers. However, any information collected for this purpose, no matter how seemingly innocuous, cannot be used for any other purpose beyond Activation. On De-Activation, this information -no longer useful- will be purged. The Publisher can run other data-mining operations, but this data-collection cannot be a requirement of the Activation.
How It Would Work 
When the software is Activated, the Publisher needs to gather certain information from the User. At the very least, a snapshot of the computer configuration will be required; the Publisher might also gather other information. If the software is run on some other computer, that configuration is matched to the one on file and the Publisher can allow or deny the software to run as they desire (with, of course, the stipulation of Right I: The Right of Free Use given above, that computers can be De-activated by the User at will). But any information the Publisher collects for this purpose can only be used for this purpose: it can't be used for any sort of data-mining, it can't be shared with the marketing department or partners. If the Publisher wants to gather this sort of information, they can do so, but they can't make it a requirement to install the software; it has to be an opt-in program separate from the Software.
The right of privacy is not something many people care about, but I do and I think it's worth defending. We get that the Publisher may need to collect information about our hardware so that only that the software is activated to only one computer, but beyond that the information cannot be used by them. Publishers MAY offer to opt-in to sharing this information, but this offer must be completely separate from the install (and not at all a requirement for activation) and must be in clear concise language, preferably with some advantage to the Gamer (so hiding it in the EULA is right out)

IV.  The Right of Resources: Copy-Protection mechanisms must be self-contained software that leave no lingering traces on the computer.

What it entails for the Publisher
If the Publisher requires DRM software to protect their copyright, this software must be self-contained and non-invasive. The DRM should only run when the Software runs, and stop running when the Software runs. It cannot install any drivers or background processes that linger in the background when the User is not using the Software. While the DRM can refuse to let the Software run should it find other programs in memory, it should not interfere with the use of those other programs when the Publisher's software is not in use. Finally, the DRM must be fully uninstalled when the Publisher's software is uninstalled.
How It Would Work
DRM software needs to be limited in its scope. Currently, it runs roughshod on the User's computer, installing ring-0 drivers and potentially installing root-kits and backdoors. It interferes with other software, such as disc-emulation programs EVEN WHEN THE GAME IT IS PROTECTING IS NOT RUNNING and does not uninstall cleanly. All this needs to change. The software will need to be rewritten and, potentially, this will make it less effective. However, DRM is not particularly effective now, so this is no big loss. The Publisher can still restrict what programs run concurrently with its own Software (both to prevent piracy and in-game cheating) but only when the Software is running.
Once I'm done with a game, I don't want some crudware sitting in the background stealing resources. And I when I say "done", I don't just mean "uninstalled"; I mean "done playing this session". When I quit Bioshock, I want any and all processes associated with it - including copy-protection mechanisms- uninstalled from memory as well. Think of a way of protecting your IP without ring-zero drivers that potentially compromise my machine. And while I grant you the right to refuse to run a game should I have potentially interfering programs running (such as Alcohol 120%), the DRM better let me play the game once I kill that process, even if the software itself is still installed (and if the game isn't running, I should be able to use Alcohol 120% as much as I damn well please)

V. The Right to Support: All problems with copy protection mechanisms must be handled by the Publisher (or their agent) free of charge

What it Entails for the Publisher
The Publisher must provide, either on their own or through an agent, free support solely to handle problems that result from its copy-protection software. This support must be both timely and knowledgeable, and if it cannot help the User with their problem, must offer them the right of return. Toll-free numbers wherever the game is sold and/or e-mail support with same-day turn-around must be offered. This support must exist for the lifetime of the product.

How It Would Work
The Publisher needs to provide some method of support resulting from problems caused by the DRM. This support needs to be separate from regular support issues, and it needs to be free and timely. The best method is to have the company that developed the DRM software handle this for you. This support needs to be knowledgeable but, should they be unable to solve the problem, they must offer - should they determine the problem to be caused by the DRM - to let the User return the software and get a refund.

If your obnoxious copy protection is keeping me from installing a game I paid for, don't make me pay for the call to correct the problem. Set up a toll-free number and staff it with people who can correct the problem. E-mail works too, but a timely response is a must. Too expensive? Get the developers of the copy-protection to do it for you; make it a requirement of the contract. Maybe if SecuRom had to handle all the calls they'd start to write decent software. Ultimately, of course, all these costs will be passed on to the consumer, but if this raises the price of the software too far beyond what its competitors are charging, the Publisher will be encouraged to use other methods of copy protection that do not cost them as much in support.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bioware and DLC, part deux

Continuing the story of my previous posting...

It was brought to my attention this isn't Bioware's first foray into offering as DLC content that should have been part of the original game. Dragon Age : Origins, a CRPG released by the same company a few months earlier, was missing what many consider a standard component of such a game: a chest or stash to store all your hard-earned loot. It was a curious omission.

Well, guess what? One of the first bits of purchasable DLC offered by Bioware included this very feature. The Warden's Keep DLC does offer significantly more than that (new quests, new locations and new items) but I can imagine a number of people are going to buy it simply for the storage chest.

Given the additional content offered in Warden's Keep, this example is a bit less cut and dried than the missing Mako in Mass Effect 2. Still, it's hard to imagine that the absence of this feature, so common to many other role-playing games, simply slipped by such a talented development team. And, judging by the speed in which gamers modded it into the PC version, it obviously isn't something that was all that difficult to code.

So if it wasn't because it was an unusual feature, and if it wasn't because Bioware just didn't have the time or skill to add it in, you just have to wonder: why wasn't it part of the game in the first place?

Mass Effect 2 and the Broken Promise of DLC

It occurred to me, as I was wrapping up the final quests in Mass Effect 2, that there was something odd about this game. It wasn't anything to do with the story or gameplay itself; rather, I suddenly remembered something unusual about the "Options" screen. Hadn't there been, I asked myself, a whole section in the control setup about binding keys to control a vehicle? And yet, I had nearly completed the entire game without driving any vehicle; was it possible I had missed an entire section of Mass Effect 2 where I could drive across a planet instead of laboriously scanning it with my mouse?

This was, of course, one of the biggest complaints about the sci-fi sequel. Whereas in the first game, you could (optionally) explore strange new worlds by dropping down onto them in your six-wheeled "Mako" assault tank, in Mass Effect 2 you never got to see the surface of the planet. Rather, your explorations were limited to a tedious mini-game depicting the planet's surface. Pixel by pixel you move your mouse across that surface until a sensor indicated there was something interesting beneath it. Click the mouse and a remote probe goes and picks it up; the only visual change, however, is that the numeric values indicating your ship's resource store goes incrementally up. Then you repeat the process... over and over again.

Initial reviewers wondered why such a boring time-sink was added to what was otherwise a decent game. Were the developers, Bioware, simply trying to stretch out the game? It seemed an unlikely tactic for such veteran designers and, in any event, the game was long enough already. And it still didn't explain those unused "vehicles controls" in the Setup screen.

Well, it turns out, Bioware/EA intend to release some DLC that will include a vehicle and the necessary maps and missions with which to use said vehicle. In other words, the DLC will be adding the functionality we already had in the first game and which was replaced with the most monotonous mini-game ever thrown into an RPG.

One of the big worries expressed by gamers when publishers started playing around with the concept of downloadable content was that the publishers would use it as a method to gouge their customers. Rather than sell a full game, they'd sell a program that was almost complete, and then require the purchaser to further shell out their hard-earned cash to buy DLC so they could have the full experience. The publishers, of course, assured us they would never do such a thing (even as they incrementally moved in that direction). I have to wonder if Mass Effect 2's DLC is the first indication of gamer's fear come to life.

With its dodgy controls and terrible maps, driving the Mako in the first game was never anybody's favorite part of the original Mass Effect game. Still, it did add an element of size and openness to the game that was otherwise confined to fairly linear and small levels. Nobody expected the Mako to disappear entirely in the sequel; nor did they expect the horrible scanning-game they saddled us with. Asking gamers to pay what should have been in the game in the first place is what they expected least of all. In fact, I have to wonder if the scanning mini-game was intentionally made as tedious a placeholder as it was in order to encourage people to buy the DLC. Certainly, as made evident by the control options in the main game, vehicle segments were intended from the start; they were not a late-hour design addition. They were purposely kept out of the game in order to sell later.

It's unfortunate that such a respected development house as Bioware has decided to resort to such scurrilous tricks, betraying their own reputation in chase of the almighty dollar (it's par for the course for EA Games, obviously). Unfortunately, I fear it's only the start of what will soon become common practice, despite earlier assurances to the contrary by publishers.