Wednesday, April 30, 2008

GTA IV: Head to Head to Head Comparison

After searching for days for a reliable head to head comparison between the PS3 and XBOX 360 versions of the game, I came to the realization that no “reliable” journalist was going to point fingers at this game, especially considering the universal 10/10 marks.

There have been reports of texture pop in, frame rate inconsistencies, and longer load times for the XBOX 360 version ever since it was cracked. Most of these reports came from users of the cracked version available on torrent sites and 90% of these reports are found on forum posts so I won’t link them here. But if you read the reviews from Metacritic, especially the ones for the 360 that are scored below 100%, reviewers will mention such issues. One such review by MEGamers, mentions pop in to the point where “the pool table spawned right in front of the character, then the balls and then the texture details.” I can’t contest to the reliability to these sites, what build of the game they actually played for review or their machine specifications. While many reports across the net has stated that both versions of the game plays beautifully and the graphical glitches are few and far between. With that research under my belt, I decided to conduct my own head to head.

Before I begin, I will preface this article with a bit of background information to help you better understand my point of view:

  • For the test, I used the following consoles:

o XBOX 360 Arcade Edition (no HDD) modified with latest custom firmware: DVD Drive speed 8X Benq, Falcon

o XBOX 360 unmodified Elite edition with 120GB HDD: DVD Drive speed 12X default Samsung, Falcon

o PS3 60GB Version: Last batch of manufactured 60GB with latest official firmware

  • I am a PC gamer first, and I own a high end gaming rig that I built.
  • I am used to a 24” monitor’s 1920 X 1200 resolution for gaming and daily work
  • I run a 8800GT Overclocked by me, and a Core 2 Duo E6600 OC to 3.4mhz
  • I am used to having my games take one hour to install (World of Warcraft anyone?)
  • I am accustomed to load times taking between 1-10 seconds max.
  • I play these games regularly and so my bias would be towards what I am used to seeing: World of Warcraft (PC), Team Fortress 2 (PC), Mass Effect (360), Rock Band (360), Guitar Hero 3 (360), Hot Shots Golf (PS3), Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Mario Galaxy, God of War 2, Final Fantasy Tactics (PSP).
  • I am not a fan-boy/girl as I do own all current gen, last gen, last-last gen, last-last-last gen, and portable systems. I believe that to be a true gamer, you must own all platforms where your creative media is publishes to receive the widest exposure

I have also 4 copies of GTA IV used during this test:

  • Grand Theft Auto IV NTSC XBOX360-101 ISO burned at 2.4X with imgburn on Verbatim Made in Singapore DL disk using a Pioneer D212 Drive
  • Grand Theft Auto IV NTSC XBOX360-101 ISO burned at 4X with imgburn on Verbatim Made in Singapore DL disk using a Pioneer D212 Drive
  • Official Retail NTSC GTA IV PS3 Version
  • Official Retail NTSC GTA IV XBOX 360 Version

Some additional background information:

  • I have been playing the torrent version for the last week already
  • I have spent a minimum of 1 hour with each version of the game
  • I have not modified any of the default display settings
  • The PS3 is connected via HDMI to DVI into a Sony Grand Wega Rear Projection displaying at 1080i on a 42” screen
  • The Elite 360 is connected via component to the same Sony Grand Wega
  • The modified 360 is connected via HDMI to a Samsung 37” LCD at 720P

I will begin to list the issues found on each version of the game.

Grand Theft Auto IV NTSC XBOX360-101 ISO burned at 2.4X:

  • Load times from the first appearance of the Rockstar logo to the start of the cut scene was 36 seconds
  • No pop ins were witnessed during the cut scene
  • During initial drive back to your safe house, store fronts would pop in, textures of buildings would pop in and out, some cars were “floating” as the road beneath them did not load
  • During cut scene in safe house, Roman’s hand would clip into the table
  • Regular game play produced various pop in where whole buildings would not load in time. During a particular chase scene, I ran directly into a building because it didn’t load
  • Tree textures would load one filter at a time (think from bare branches to fall colors layer by layer)
  • Walking into the cabaret show, the entire room was white except for character model, then railings and structure started to load in wire frame first, then textures, and finally colors
  • Cut scene during First Date mission showing the various entertainment locations took between 10-35 seconds each to load

Grand Theft Auto IV NTSC XBOX360-101 ISO burned at 4X (only difference from 2.4X are noted):

  • Load times from the first appearance of the Rockstar logo to the start of the cut scene was 37 seconds
  • Cut scene during First Date mission show the various entertainment locations was taking between 15-40 seconds to load

Official Retail NTSC GTA IV PS3 Version:

  • Load times from first appearance of the Rockstar logo to the beginning of the HDD installation was 4 seconds
  • Installation to HDD completed in 7 minutes and 25 seconds
  • Colors of the PS3 version compared to the ripped ISO were more natural and less contrasted
  • Aliasing was also noted to be smoother, you can tell the difference by paying attention to the ships various round openings during the cut scene, PS3 AA was much better
  • Clipping was not noticed during any cut scene
  • More detail was witnessed during initial cut scene for the road surface texture and the character models
  • Pop ins were limited to the “shimmering” effect of building shadows and certain filtering of dense trees
  • Loading time during First Date cut scene was between 2-5 seconds
  • “white room” during Cabaret show was not witnessed
  • Fast drives, explosions, crashes, and 3 star wanted rating produced no noticeable pop in

Official Retail NTSC GTA IV XBOX 360 Version (only differences between PS3 are noted):

  • Load time from first appearance of the Rockstar logo to the beginning of cut scene was 7 seconds (no HDD installation was required)
  • Colors of character models and scenery during initial cut scene were more contrasted compared to both PS3 and Ripped versions
  • Anti Aliasing appeared the same as the ripped version but more jaggy lines were noticed on all curved surfaces compared to PS3 version
  • During initial cut scene, building silhouettes as the ship approaches the harbor were noted to pop in and out for a brief second
  • Pop in for shadows and trees were more frequent. For every one shadow on the PS3, there were 3 that popped for the 360 (average).
  • Fast drives, explosions, and crashes produced no noticeable pop in
  • 3 star wanted rating created pop ins at the same location (hospital) for surround trees and building surface textures across the street

So what does this all mean? It means that from a technical perspective, the PS3 version is the better of the 4. The burned ISO (I did burn this 4 times with 2 other friends also testing it out) faired the worst out of the bunch. The pop-in and load time makes that game barely playable compared to other games I’m accustomed to. I am not sure what the source was for this burned ISO but others have validated my findings, locally and on other forums. While there are those that have said their burned version did not suffer from these pop ins, but there is no way to validate those points as pop ins do not occur in the same place every time or for everyone. The retail 360 version holds its own very well, considering its limited technical power (compared to PS3 specs). The HDD install for the PS3 certainly helps, as it should, with the load times and frame rates. Texture pop in was also minimal on the PS3, but I cannot say if it is because of the HDD install. Colors were more photo-realistic in the PS3 version. It looked grimmer at night, and cleaner at dawn, and murky at dusk. That’s how I would imagine a place like Liberty City would be, think of The Wire and you will understand. Colors on the 360 were much brighter and contrasted and the lines on the faces of the character models were more pronounced, causing a harsher look. Primary colors were very noticeable on the 360 which lends to a more “cartoon” feel. Load times were slightly longer but negligible for someone not comparing this to a 6.5 GB install on a high end PC. These are actually very fast load times for a console game of this size and complexity. Load times were the worst for the burned version. There was actually a period during that First Date cut scene that I contemplated getting a drink and a snack because it took so long.

As for a recommendation on which version is the best you will have to look past the technological analysis. This is unfortunate because the PS3 is clearly (to me at least) the better programmed and performing version. However, the consumer has to take into account the following factors:

  • PS3 user base is smaller than the XBOX 360; therefore, there will be a lower maximum amount of users online for multiplayer
  • PS3’s PSN is free to play where XBOX 360 Live service is $59.99 (Canadian MSRP for 12 month subscription)
  • PS3 control scheme differs from XBOX 360 control scheme. PS3 controls are more familiar if you have played previous GTA games on PS2
  • Downloadable content is coming for the XBOX 360 version only (for the moment) and could arrive as soon as this summer
  • PS3 60GB systems have been reported to suffer from game freezes (I did not witness this during my 2 hours with the game on PS3 60GB)
  • XBOX 360 has online achievement points and a gamer score tie in

If I were to recommend one version over the other, it would depend on what you value most. If you don’t care about multiplayer with your friends (note: cross platform multiplayer is not available, so if you want to play together, you have to own the same version) or achievements/gamer score then choose the PS3 for its technical polish. If you do care about online with your friends, achievements and gamer score, then choose the XBOX 360 version. For all the 360’s faults, they are not so bad to the point it distracts you from the experience (unless you are playing the downloaded version). For myself, because I really value visuals and that I rare play online with XBOX Live (I can’t stand the kids!!) I am leaning towards the PS3 version. However, I am an achievement whore. I love the idea of having secondary goals to give incentive to people like myself that are not so story driven. There is also the promise of downloadable content, which may not be great, but with Rockstar’s history it should be the size of an expansion pack (let’s hope it’s not GTA IV: Pets!) I am still on the fence because of my personal preferences but if you are not in my situation, I would rent both before committing (if you have not already). I have both copies of the Special Edition still sealed but only one will be returning to the store…which one will that be? Tune in next week (or sooner) for the verdict!

UPDATE: As per suggestion, I retested both my burned copies at 8X drive speed with optional HDD installed to see if load times and pop ins would be comparable to the retail 360 version running on my Elite. I used the same 120GB HDD from my Elite 360 and installed it on my modified arcade. Here are my findings:

  • Load times from start of Rockstar logo to beginning of cut scene was 31 Seconds (this is a 5 second improvement)
  • The load times during the cut scene for First Date mission loaded from 7 seconds to 28 seconds (this improved from 10-35 seconds)
  • Textures of shadows and trees were still popping in and the shimmering effect was still seen, although it appeared to occur less frequently
  • AA issues still apparent
  • There were no disappearing roads or popping in of trees during the 1.5 hours I played the game
  • Garbage cans, picnic tables, and certain other destructible elements did suffer from pop in
The installation of the HDD did prove some slight improvement of load times, in some cases, this improved by 3 seconds. However, pop in and texture loading still occurred. There was a noticeable reduction in pop in compared to the first round of testing, and during the 1.5 hours of play, the road did not disappear on me or did a building pop up in my path. This does not mean that everyone should run out and get a HDD as the load times was not a significant increase and texture tearing and popping was already reduced with the retail version for the XBOX 360 compared to the burned version. On a related note, I noticed that the burned version had a slightly different cut scene than the retail version on the PS3 and 360. There is a part where a stripper is dancing on a pole, in the retail versions for both consoles, she is wearing a white bikini top. However, on the burned version, she is not wearing a bikini top and instead there is a black "X" taped across her nipples. I'm not sure if that means the ripped release was actually from a non-retail source or if the code was modified. As for my own decision of which version to keep, I will be keeping the XBOX 360 version despite the graphical improvement. I don't want to run the risk of the downloadable content being fabulous and having to replay the whole game again just to have access to it. I will eventually purchase a PS3 version due to its technical merits, but that won't be until it becomes less than $30. Too bad, I liked the PS3 Special Edition's box art better. Scratch one on the board for Microsoft and their foresight in securing some exclusive content. They made at least one graphics cynic look past its faults and choose 360 over the more polished PS3. EDIT #1: I will update tonight after a reader suggested that in all fairness, I should test the burned copies with a HDD installed on the modded box. I'll time the loads and see if there's a difference in load times and other issues.

Monday, April 28, 2008

GTA: Pets

GTA IV is almost among us!

For some, you may already be playing it. I won’t debate the righteousness of pirate software here (and we can just be honest, it is piracy – as defined by the law makers). But the truth is the versions that are floating out on the digital horizon may not be what you are expecting.

From my previous posts, you know I have modded my 360; therefore, these games are available to me. So in all honesty, I have been playing it over the last weekend. I must say that I do agree with most of the reviews out there but this game is not a 10. I’m not going to give a review here because I’m far from finishing it but initial impressions are that it has some work to do before I can justify giving this a perfect rating for games in this current generation. There are some technical issues with my cracked version, and being a pirate, you can’t always verify where the good were obtained from. You certainly can’t be picky if you are getting it for free. But this has led me to think about what video gaming as an industry is becoming.

I feel that gaming industry is slowly (or quickly depending on your point of view) becoming closer to the movie and music industry. It’s only natural because of the type of business and their shared forms of media. But this also means that there’s good and bad for the consumer.

EA is becoming a giant in the video games sector, both as a developer and a publisher. The good thing is that there’s at least one other (Activision/Blizzard) that can compete but this also means the little guys will suffer from higher levels of bureaucracy.

Imagine for a moment if EA successfully acquires Take2. With the cash cow that’s Rockstar and the GTA brand, EA will have no problems folding that into the mould of other successful franchises such as the Sims. Now fast forward one year and they announce GTA V. GTA V will technically be GTA IV with slightly higher frame rates, cleaner textures, and connectivity to the EA online store. EA Online will also require you to register to play, and in game ads will be implemented. While you can connect to EA Online to buy new clothes and accessories for your protagonist (a man named Woo Pang, from communist China, seeking a new life in Liberty City). Initial publication reviews will give it a 7.9-8.8 stating that it is more of the same with tweaks here and there, and the additional online content will out weigh the necessity of in game ads. Their tag line will be: More of the same and that isn’t necessarily bad.

Then in 3 months, the first expansion pack will be released both online and in stores, riddled with bugs, and crashed multiple PS3 due to install error. But it will still sell one million copies because it now comes with the ability of owning pets for your protagonist.

I’m being cynical of course but it could very well happen. Personally, I’m glad that there are still medium sized publishers that are still pushing the limits in terms of artistic design, technical design, and political boundaries. Know that GTA IV: Spin Off One will definitely be released for both platforms shortly after the PC version will be released. And the downloadable content from the 360 version will be included with the expansion pack for the PS3 version.

I will be renting both copies of GTA: IV to try on unmodified systems and see if I’m still experiencing any of the same issues as my cracked version. I will post again once I am able to reliability compare the two versions to my cracked version. Honestly, I’ll probably just end up getting the 360 retail version anyway just because I’m an achievement whore.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Is Crap Still Crap if it is Free?

Some of you know that I have jumped on the HD-DVD fire sales. I currently own 3 HD-DVD players – 2 Xbox 360 add-on drives and 1 Toshiba A30. Since the demise of HD-DVD, my collection has ballooned to 5 times its original size and it’s sitting at close to 35 titles and growing. The problem I run into is that they are pricing these HD-DVDs at close to $8 used and $13 new. At these prices, it’s so close to rental costs that it makes more sense to own them. I run into a problem with titles such as Shrek the Third. That movie received universally low scores and did not fair very well general audiences. I have seen it and I thought there were moments but certainly not a worthy title to own in ones collection. But at a price of $8 used (and in mint condition – I wonder why!) it’s almost a shame to leave it behind.

So I bought this piece of crap for the sake of it being a cheap.

The other thing that has been bothering me is with most of my consoles modded (PS3 is the only one still virgin), I have access to a whole catalog of crap that I would not have considered if my console was still virgin. The Wii is a prime example of this, where there are 8 crap-tacular games for every one good title. I have recently come across the game Elebits. That game was an average 7.5 score and was mediocre at best. But I was always interested in it so I decided to pick it off of my site. Once booted and I began to play, I realized that this would have been fun if I was 12 years old or if I had never played a video game before. The Xbox 360 also has its share of crap-tacular titles. I was playing Kane and Lynch the other day and was that ever a stinker.

I guess the point is when you have the ability to get free crap, most people that are predisposed to deals, will jump on it. I can personally list a few friends and family that have boxes full of crap because it was a good deal. In keeping with my “green” theme, I think I will save some “green” money and be more selective on my “purchases” from now on. Because even if I have access to these titles of my modded consoles, it is still costing me time, effort, and the price of media to play a piece of crap.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Not Easy Being Green

Green is the buzz word for 2008. I think we can all agree those in any modern field of manufacturing and commodities have been pushing “greener” living and consumption. Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Price for his work in the field of awareness. His film, An Inconvenient Truth, also generated two Academy Awards. Although I have yet to see that film from start to finish, and regardless of whether you agree with his point of view or not, it has generated a lot of discussion on the issue of global warming and the responsibility humans have as stewards of the Earth. This is why I was toying with the idea of building a secondary PC for the sole purpose of file transfer.

I have been know to occasionally torrent a few files and have had the need to keep my desktop (or more accurately “deskbottom”) PC on for extended periods of time (30 days and counting now). This puts a lot of strain on the electricity bill, not to mention the increased consumption of natural resources. Even though Calgary’s major power provider is committed to green energy, it is still a wasteful practice that I wanted to reduce. So in researching the actual consumption wattage of my PC, and without using a kill-a-watt type machine, I can say my system idle consumption is between 150-200W. So if my PC is online 24/7 for the last 30 days, I have then used, at worst case scenario:

Wattage x Hours Used Per Day = Daily Kilowatt-hour (kWh) consumption (1 kilowatt (kW) = 1,000 Watts)

200W X 24 = 4800/1000 = 4.8 kWh per day

My current provider is charging approximately $0.10/kWh so that’s costing me $0.48/day to run my computer and over a period of $30 days, that’s $14.40 I am paying for uploading.

My computer system is a fair beast, with 4 fans, 3 hard drives, 8800GT, 4GB of ram, and a CPU that’s overclocked by 40%. Do I need the power to bittorrent? No. So how much can I save by going to a HTPC style of a torrent server? Even at best case scenario, which is like a laptop usage, I would still be consuming around 80W by having a barebones system running instead of my main PC. That’s a savings of $8.64 using the same calculations from above. This amount to a total of $103.38 per year assuming prices per kWh remains the same.

The configured HTPC barebones system will cost at the least, $350 to build/order. That means I have to use this system for the next 3 years in order to break even. I can hear Al Gore saying now, “But think about all that intrinsic value you gain by saving the environment!” I’m sorry Al; I have to save my pocket book first before I can save the environment. Not everyone can be the ex-vice president and be independently wealthy when they retire. So for the moment, I will try and use my PC less, maybe cutting uptime by 25% at first and go from there. It would be interesting to see what it actually works out to be in real dollar savings.

And on a related note, Calgary was just hit with about 5cm of snow. Even the trees are having a hard time going green!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Whoa! Someone is wrong on the Internet!

Say, here’s a revelation, I’m pretty new to all this blogging and internet posting bit! Shocking isn’t it. Obviously there are those that have grown up posting on BBS and writing in web journals before there were blogs. I’m not one of those people.

This is my second attempt at up keeping a blog. My first was a personal blog post that was private and was more of an online journal than anything. That sort of died into the internet recycle bin after I started to work. Now, The Ikea Gamer is completely and unapologetically a digital soap box for me. Just refer to one of my first posts about Halo 3, the “feedback” I received from that piece was not fit for public viewing!

Being an opinionated person is good. It means that you know what you want and you are not afraid to voice it. Women in general like that in a man, someone who’s confident without being a bigot or chauvinist. Of course, my wife doesn’t read this blog. Not because I hide it from her but it’s because she thinks blogs are time wasters. She would much rather read a novel by an accredited writer or “someone with talent”. What can you say to that but “thanks honey”! HAHA!

Of course she jokes but she does have a point. If this is my digital soap box, then I should really be able to voice my opinion without prejudice. This leads me to the problem at hand; dealing with others that seem to disagree with you completely. If you have had any real mileage on the information super highway you know whom I’m talking about. This group of people, they are usually younger and immature in life (but don’t always have to be), will argue with you only to end arguments with a jest or personal attack. These people love to argue for the sake of arguing and not for a resolution. My issue is that I can’t seem to ignore these people as well as others may on the internet. I post regularly on other forums and have been for some time. Recently, there has been an influx of the previously mentioned people posting. Like myself, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and started a debate on the issue at hand. After a lengthy exchange, and researched evidence on my end, the other person simply just said, “There was too much work put into that post, whatever.” Obviously I was flabbergasted! All that work and not even an educated response.

So the moral of the story is that there is absolutely no point in having an internet argument. I don’t know these people from strangers on the street so any particular out come is non-consequential. Which is why I’m announcing a retirement of sorts. I’m nearing a post count of 2000 on this particular site. I will post sparingly from now on, only posting either questions I can’t answer myself or information necessary to obtain those answers. There will be no more sharing, debating, or discussion on these forums. I’m quite done with those sites. In fact, I will be updating the blog a bit more frequently not that there is more time.

Like a good comedian, I have to do things I don’t like and talk to the odd people in order to obtain material. So in this case, I will still read those threads of interest as it give good material for The Ikea Gamer. Until next time, peace.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Church and State (otherwise known as Publisher and Retailer)

Some of you may have read the coverage on joystiq and kotaku about how EB Games Canada is offering a pre-order promotion with HAZE on the PS3. The promotion is very simple, and has been done before (God of War 2 – PS2). They are saying if you pre-order HAZE before its launch date, you will be able to play it for one week, return it with receipt, and get full store credit towards something else.

Naturally, this is a pretty sweet deal. This basically amounts to a free rental on a new release game. What truly pushes this deal to Olympian status is it qualifies as a “Trade 3 get it Free” title. Which really mean you can trade three of your used games that have a trade in value of $8 or more and get HAZE for free AND get the full $60+GST back as credit after one week. Congratulations, you have just effectively more than doubled your trade in credit. There are whole sites and threads on forums devoted to how you can maximize your trade ins so I won’t elaborate here.

The rub here is not that EB is offering a free rental of HAZE, but it’s really because they are cutting into the bottom line of Ubisoft, the publisher of the game (and that the Americans aren’t offered this same promotion – that’s right, Canada is on top!) How this happens, as kotaku reported, is that EB games is profiting 100% from the used sale of this game. Here’s the math:

*Assuming taxes are all included and that wholesale cost per unit is $35, and cost of operation not included

Cost to you:

$24 ($8 games X 3)

Play HAZE for one week and refund for store credit: $60

Spend store credit for another $60 game

EB Cost:

$35 for HAZE from Ubisoft

Sell 3 used games for $20 each = $60 (at this point, they have made almost 2X their money back)

Give you another game they purchased for $35 when you return HAZE

Turn around and sell HAZE for $55 (which is 100% profit)

EB Net total: (-35+60-35+55) = $45

So why does Ubisoft care? Because they don’t get a bite of that $45 EB just made from you. Now why should you care? Because Ubisoft is trying to stop this from happening and if they succeed, it means that publishers and developers will now have a direct effect on the trade in values of a game, not just the MSRP (note that the “S” stands for suggested). This is bad for the consumer as prices will no longer be determined by the consumer and market competition will effectively halt. The end result of this promotion is that everyone BUT the publisher wins. EB makes money and you are happy because you got to play one game and return it for something else for more than you paid for.

What will be more likely is that Ubisoft will inflate the first week sales and pre-order numbers of this game, win some advertising dollars, and make Rainbow 6 Vegas 3 a clone of R6V1. They will get their supper, they just have to wait a bit longer.

EDIT: Thanks to M.Y. for the kind input on prospective volume pricing for new games. Values in calculations changed to reflect possible per unit pricing for EB Games from distributors. Links to original articles also updated.