2014: Everything was Remasters

Everything was remastersI’m planning out my annual Game of the Year list for 2014 and I have a serious problem: I’m fairly sure I haven’t even played ten new games this year. I still don’t have a Wii U, meaning I’ve so far missed out on a couple of gems there – Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 would almost certainly make the list – and I’m aware of a couple of candidates that I haven’t touched on the big consoles – The Evil Within, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shadows of Mordor, Far Cry 4 – but it’s still a disappointing crop.

That lot, coupled with the ones I actually have played, would still only take me up to a dozen or so, which is well down on years when putting together a top ten was a challenge for good reasons and left me with enough worthy games to fill an impressive honourable mentions list. Now, though, I’m either dropping it to a top five or just going with a handful of favourites to be hailed as one.

One trend is clear, though. My one remaining preorder for the year is Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD, which joins Final Fantasy X HD, Grand Theft Auto V for the PS4 and Metro Redux on my shelf. And I’ve been quite selective with those four, skipping Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and no doubt some lesser examples that are slipping my mind. Just today, Dark Souls II was announced for the PS4 and Xbox One. Not the superior previous games in the series, and coming in the face of the series creator’s eagerly awaited next project. Just Dark Souls II. Again.

I know this isn’t necessarily a zero sum game where we’re getting remasters instead of new games, but such a barren 12 months really makes it feel that way.

I felt positive about this new generation after a generally disappointing and far too long one, but it’s been marred by technical issues and this blight. Thank god we have the scintillating first half of 2015 to make up for it.

Building a £200 HTPC with OpenELEC

Zbox NanoTiny PCs like the Intel NUC are limited as replacements for the desktop, but they’ve come into their own in harnessing the media-decoding prowess of new chipsets to drive an HTPC. Coupled with free media centre software, it’s become possible to put together a powerful little set-top box that can compete with the behemoths of only a few years ago.

It’s actually feasible to do it even cheaper than that if you use a Raspberry Pi flavour of your chosen software, or even adapt an older PC that’s set for retirement, but my desired integration with my existing setup and a handful of esoteric requirements made this an appealing route.

  • Lossless HD audio over HDMI was a must, and many motherboards are finicky about this
  • Built-in wi-fi, SD card reader and IR saves a lot of messing with peripherals and USB hubs
  • I aim to rip Blu-rays to this thing without recompression, and I don’t fancy a £30 computer to handle those
The hardware

I spent £170 on a Zotac Zbox Nano AQ01, which nets you the box without RAM or internal storage. I recycled a 2GB RAM stick from when I upgraded my laptop – somewhat anaemic, but fine if media playback is all you’re planning – and dug out the old 60GB HDD that used to inhabit my PS3, which is more than capacious enough for the OS if you’re using external media storage. The box has seven USB ports (2x USB 3.0 and 5x 2.0), so you have plenty of scope to add capacity later.

If you don’t have the skeletons of various computers around to raid, you could plump for the more expensive Plus model, which includes 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD. An even cheaper storage option if you’re relying on external or network storage and want a pure XBMC machine is a low-profile USB flash drive like a SanDisk Cruzer Fit, which can slot into the back and never have to be seen again. You’ll want at least 8GB as even though XBMC isn’t very large, the library of high-quality artwork it caches for your movies can be.

The Zbox AQ01 runs on AMD’s A4-5000 platform. That’s based on the same Jaguar architecture found inside the PS4 and Xbox One and has GPU-accelerated video decoding, ensuring smooth playback of high-quality video. It’s more than capable of general computing tasks if you install a full OS like Windows or Linux on it, but I’m not interested in that.

It has HDMI (also DisplayPort), optical audio, Wi-Fi (802.11ac), Bluetooth, gigabit Ethernet, a 7-in-1 memory card reader and, pleasingly, a built-in IR receiver. In short, it’s incredibly well-equipped considering the compromises I was looking at making in building my own, much physically bigger and more expensive, HTPC.

The software

For this project I’m sticking with what I know, which is XBMC. I first used it circa 2004 when it was Xbox Media Center, a staple of the modded Xbox scene, and since then it’s expanded to other platforms. I’ve opted for its OpenELEC form, a stripped down version of Linux bearing only what it needs to run XBMC. It’s fast, light on resources, and takes up very little space. A similar option is XBMCbuntu, which leans slightly more towards flexibility at the expense of hardware requirements.

XBMC also runs atop Windows and the Zbox will happily run it, but a licence costs almost half as much as the machine, so forget that.

The process of ripping DVDs and Blu-rays is handled on my main computer, using MakeMKV to generate a lossless rip and HandBrake to compress the DVDs. Using this, I can get a DVD movie into around 1.5GB with little quality loss. BDs are staying in all their 30GB+ glory, HD audio and all. I started with a 1TB USB drive that didn’t last me through a tenth of my collection before I had to move to bigger, more expensive network storage (a Synology DS214se with 2x 4TB HDDs), but it should suit most users.

Installation

With the Zbox all working and the OpenELEC installer on a flash drive, all that needs doing is popping that into a USB slot, turning it on, and running through the five-minute installation. I couldn’t get the Mac script to correctly create a bootable USB drive, but I ran the Windows version instead without issue. That’s really all there was to the setup, as things are basically ready to go from the start; run through the settings to get things configured how you want them, point XBMC at where your movies and TV shows are stored, and you’re off.

Skins and add-ons

I’ve frequently found that UI design isn’t a strong point of open source software, and the majority of XBMC skins I tried did indeed look like they were designed by teenage boys. The default skin, Confluence, is a solid choice, though. My only major complaint was that it lacked a library view that fulfilled my dual aims of putting the lovely artwork and metadata to good use and being usable with my large library. The ‘fanart’ view wastes a lot of space.

XBMC Confluence skin

I eventually settled on Aeon Nox. The more granular control over the main menu is nice, allowing me to drop options like sets, which I’m never likely to use, and create my own shortcuts to unwatched movies and similar filtered lists. A classy set of background images reins in the main menu − that open source design again − and the ‘infoview’ option allows me to see more movies at once without sacrificing the poster art and metadata:

XBMC Aeon Nox skin

An honourable mention goes to Quartz, which convincingly imitates the Apple TV interface. Very slick and would have been a contender for my skin of choice were it not for the lack of anything as good as the above view.

Issues

A niggle more than anything would be that programming my Harmony remote to perform anything but the most basic functions – anything not on a generic Windows Media Center remote – is a world of XML files and key listings that I frankly can’t be bothered to get into. I also can’t turn on the Zbox with the remote, though I sense that’s going to be a common limitation unless I fancy leaving the thing in hibernation 24/7. Shutting down that way works fine.

I’d also suggest Intel or Nvidia graphics hardware if bitstreaming HD audio is your intention. AMD’s Linux drivers are a bit naff, and although it’s not impossible to get it working, it’s a daunting process. For now I’m letting XBMC handle TrueHD and converting DTS-HD to FLAC during the ripping process. If a future OpenELEC update enables proper HD audio support, brilliant; if not, no big deal.

Should you be less finicky about such things, though, you’ll have no problems with this setup. It’s going to take me a good while to get everything ripped – 284 down, approximately 500 to go at the time of writing, not counting TV shows – but when it’s done I look forward to reclaiming some shelf space and having an on-demand box that, unlike Netflix and friends, actually has a library I’m interested in.

Console Wars

Console WarsAs much as I love my well-thumbed copy of Game Over, it’s over 20 years old. Its account of Nintendo’s rise lacks two decades of changing perspective, context, new information that has emerged as people retire, move on and, separated from events by years and expired NDAs, give increasingly candid interviews. It’s from a world where the Atari ET landfill story is apocryphal.

Console Wars’ chosen subject is different, coming in when Nintendo has already risen to its zenith and concentrating on the competition with Sega in the early 90s. There’s none of the smart, nimble Nintendo that came out of David Sheff’s book; this is the empire whose monopolistic tendencies alienated enough third-parties to create the way in that Sega and ultimately Sony exploited.

There’s a major movie in development (at Sony Pictures, amusingly) based on this book, hence the foreword by Seth Rogen, which is extraordinary to me. There’s the kernel of a film here – indeed, everyone knows the snappy line to win an argument in a way that no one does in real life – but while The Social Network proved that the rise of a major tech company can make a fascinating cinematic experience, Blake Harris and the team behind Superbad aren’t David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. Time will have to tell on that one.

The book itself is solid but unspectacular. The aforementioned tendency for everyone to speak like polished movie scripts can grate, as can the Hollywood stereotypes that uniformly present the Americans as hard-working creatives and the Japanese as stoic, conservative and petty. It may be true that Sega of Japan was the architect of Sega’s post-16-bit downfall, and the book makes a convincing argument for this viewpoint, but a bit more nuance would have been nice.

But I still learnt a lot, even as someone who grew up consuming everything I could about gaming in this period. Did you know, for instance…

  • …that Nintendo was once so big that it accounted for 10% of Walmart’s total profits?
  • …that Sonic 2 was both the first global launch and the first set-in-stone release date in gaming history?
  • …that Sega passed up the opportunities to release the hardware that would become the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64?
  • …that Sega’s Tom Kalinske was responsible for the Nintendo-Silicon Graphics relationship that gave us Donkey Kong Country and the N64?
  • …that Sonic’s iconic silhouette was achieved by combining Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse? And his middle name is actually ‘The’?
  • …that the born-again Christianity of Konami’s president turned Dracula Satanic Castle into the more enduring and Jesus-friendly Castlevania?
  • …that the US government’s antitrust lawsuit against Nintendo was completely by accident filed on the 40th anniversary of Pearl Harbor?

Those little snippets are the kind of things that I lapped up. There are enough of them sprinkled liberally throughout that I was willing to overlook the liberties taken by the author. Well worth a look for anyone who honed their debating skills on the school playground in the early 90s.

Game Over’s still the daddy, though.

E3 2014 Conference Review

The second E3 is usually when the big guns come out, the developers working on the second wave of games for the new consoles show off their labours, giving us the first proper taste of the games and franchises that will define this generation.

What we got if that was your expectation was a disappointingly conservative showing. Sequels, sequels, sequels, and a stubborn refusal to move on from the 360 and PS3, which is undoubtedly holding things back. Very few surprises and certainly none of the shocks that leave fond memories of fanboy meltdowns. Third-party exclusives haven’t been common for a while, of course, but my god do I ever miss those announcements that one was jumping ship or getting into bed with the enemy. There’s no excitement in platform holders’ conferences when you know that everything shown will be on the rival systems too.

This E3 may have been low on flash, then, but it was up there in terms of substance. It was full of impressive demonstrations of quality games, even if none of them were particularly memorable announcements.

As always, in order of appearance…

Microsoft

As the first to go and arguably the one with the most to prove, Microsoft felt like the one with the most potential for surprises. What it absolutely got right – and it really had to – was the focus on games. MS’s scramble to reposition the Xbox One has been done with admirable speed, and with the bombs like the Kinect-free version out of the way, all it had to talk about was the reason why people liked the first two Xbox systems.

Starting off with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare felt like a misstep, as that’s a franchise in decline, with nothing to surprise and a disappointing lack of impact. It looked utterly uninteresting even for COD. I’m done with this series, I think it’s safe to say. When the next game was a cross-platform Forza, my will to live was quickly being sapped.

Once through the safe bets, though, there was some great exclusive stuff. Sunset Overdrive is unusual in a number of ways – it’s colourful, a new property, an exclusive, and a game from Insomniac that looks worth playing. Ori and the Blind Forest and Inside look beautiful, though I kind of feel like arty indie platform games are like modern military shooters at this point. The Master Chief Collection is astonishing value – four campaigns and over 100 multiplayer maps – when we’re being charged £55 for versions of The Last of Us and GTA V on the new consoles. I wonder if Crackdown was of its time and should be left alone, but I did adore the first one and will certainly give the new one a chance.

The lack of big surprises and the one more thing that would have topped off Phil Spencer’s turnaround of the Xbox division left me underwhelmed, but since that’s a problem for all three platform holders, I’m not going to hold it against Microsoft. When looking at what was there rather than what wasn’t, it was solid and safe. Nothing more.

B

Sony

Microsoft had patched many of its weaknesses in the weeks leading up to E3, leaving no easy wins like last year’s price and DRM announcements. In the absence of such freebies, Sony was much like Microsoft: lots of solid games, no surprises, little to really get giddy about.

Destiny was the opener – both conferences starting off with an Activision shooter, interestingly – and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Bungie’s game hasn’t set the world alight in its recent public showings. The alpha has convinced me that it’s a lot of fun, however, but to watch it on stage, it’s hard to see it coming close to making its supposed $500 million budget back. That white PS4, though. Wow.

The Order: 1866 was the headlining exclusive and hasn’t so far enamoured me – stunning-looking but it’s going to take something spectacular for an over-the-shoulder cover shooter to get me excited. LittleBigPlanet 3 is as uninteresting as the series has been since the disappointing first game. Uncharted 4 looks amazing if that is indeed, as has been stated, a real-time trailer. Bloodborne deserves hype simply for being a new action RPG from Hidetaka Miyazaki, the man behind Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and whose touch was missing from Dark Souls II.

The return of Grim Fandango was a pleasant surprise, and as ScummVM was a fixture of my modded PSP, so will this be on my Vita. What it represents is also exciting: a sign that LucasArts under Disney hasn’t abandoned its point-and-click legacy in the way that the independent LucasArts seemingly had. Here’s hoping the excellent Monkey Island special editions will soon be getting some company.

Sony’s focus on indies still strikes me as a convenient and politically trendy way to plug the gaps in a thin release schedule. Nonetheless, I’ll take Hotline Miami 2, and assuming it has the gameplay to back up the concepts, No Man’s Sky deserves its accolades. Proof that a game can skimp on budget and development team size without giving up scope and ambition.

B+

Nintendo

Removed from physical E3 conferences as it’s removed from the hardware horsepower race, Nintendo brought its successful Direct format to the show. It worked well, I thought. All the games with none of the annoying, hooting, American crowds.

I’ll discount Smash Bros immediately, since I can’t stand it and find the astronomical hype around it baffling. I’ve bought the last three and still haven’t liked the series since the novelty of a Nintendo fighting game in the N64 one wore off. Following it with a Skylanders equivalent in Amiibo and Nintendo had a poor start in my opinion.

With the kids’ stuff and pretend fighting games out the way, though, Nintendo’s range of new announcements impressed me. Yoshi’s Wooly World gets some more mileage out of those shaders built for Kirby’s Epic Yarn and looks gorgeous, as Yoshi games have tended to through Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story. I love Nintendo when it gets creative like that a lot more than I do over another Mario Kart or Mario game that isn’t in the style of Mario 64, even if the experiments are not always successful.

The new Zelda is an exciting foray into open-world games – Nintendo being late to the party there again – with a nice art style that straddles cartoony and realistic. I’ll only temper the Zelda love with the caveat that it wasn’t Majora’s Mask 3D, which must surely be coming with the mask sightings increasing in frequency. Nintendo must be doing it deliberately, and I expect that to show up in a Nintendo Direct before too long.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (formerly X), Bayonetta 2, a follow-up to the excellent and underrated Kirby’s Canvas Curse, and Mario Maker, which is infinitely more appealing than another LittleBigPlanet, rounded up a strong line-up of exclusive releases. Hyrule Warriors was there, too, though Dynasty Warriors isn’t usually to my taste, so we’ll see on that one.

The biggest compliment I can give Nintendo is that if I was sitting on the fence and didn’t yet have a current console, the E3 showings would have had me leaning towards a Wii U, even despite the power deficit. Nintendo in HD is as beautiful and varied as we’d all hoped, with a commitment to smooth gameplay and flawless image quality that many third-parties could do with imitating – too bad it’s a generation late. Drop the price a bit more and I’ll happily be buying a Nintendo console for the first time in the better part of a decade.

A-

Perhaps my biggest complaint about E3 2014 is that so many trailers ended with the words “coming 2015″. It seems to me that this year’s biggest releases are GTA V, The Last of Us and Halo 1-4, suggesting that the games industry has finally outdone Hollywood in one respect: while Hollywood milks the 80s and 90s for remakes, gaming does it to last year. That’s a depressing state of affairs.

That’s a lie, actually. My biggest complaint was that Shenmue III wasn’t there. Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo: you’re missing out on an easy win!

Passage to India

A couple of hours from now I’ll be on my way to India for a couple of weeks, my first foreign trip since I went to New York in 2009. I don’t think I’ll be going on a tour of the major locations from Temple of Doom or anything, but you never know. In any case, a trip like this is long overdue.

And it better be good, considering how many injections, visa applications and unexpected expenses I suffered for this jaunt.

I’m doing without my computer and phone, so my connectivity will depend on Internet cafes and my ability to remember my 30-character gibberish logins without 1Password, so don’t expect what updates I make to be particularly verbose. But I do plan to take a lot of photos and video, having finally replaced old faithful with another Lumix, and will post them here and on Twitter. I don’t often test WordPress’s gallery functionality, but when I do, I do it during altitude acclimatisation in the Himalayas.

Converting Blu-ray HD audio to FLAC

As I mentioned in my first look at ripping Blu-rays, converting uncompressed PCM and lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio to FLAC for use in XBMC carries a number of benefits.

  • It’s also lossless, so no quality difference.
  • FLAC is an open, well-documented format and so you’re not reliant on reverse-engineered implementations.
  • XBMC can decode FLAC to PCM and output it over HDMI, whereas it currently can’t for DTS-HD.
  • Hard drive space savings can be significant, especially for PCM soundtracks.

There’s little penalty in terms of the time taken to rip the disc either, as it’s unlikely that your BD drive can copy data from the disc fast enough for the conversion process to become a bottleneck.

What you need

This process still uses MakeMKV, with the feature enabled in by checking the advanced options box in the settings. TrueHD decoding is built in, but you’ll need to find a separate DTS module and point MakeMKV to that.

MakeMKV

All you then need to do it choose the ‘FLAC’ preset when ripping a disc. Otherwise the process is identical.

File sizes

I picked three movies representing the three HD audio formats supported on BD. All were ripped to an MKV file containing only the main video, the lossless main audio track, and no subtitles; file size recorded; then passed through MakeMKV again to convert the audio to FLAC. After conversion, MediaInfo was used to verify that the number of channels, sampling rate and bit depth (some versions of the DTS decoder have a bug that will change 24-bit audio to 16-bit, hence the use of 24-bit audio tracks below) were unaffected.

Movie Audio Original size New size Delta
2001: A Space Odyssey PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 20.10GB 16.38GB 3.72GB (18.5%)
Blade Runner Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 18.22GB 18.08GB 0.14GB (0.8%)
The Bourne Identity DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) 25.96GB 25.42GB 0.54GB (2.1%)

I noted a few more, with all the data recorded in this spreadsheet. The range of formats reflects the predominance of DTS-HD on Blu-ray these days, but there’s a clear 2-3% gain on substituting FLAC there. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s half a gig when you’re talking about files of 20GB and up.

Conclusion

According to my unscientific tests, then, converting to FLAC delivers a saving in file size over the untouched original track across the board, with a minimal reduction for TrueHD and a handy half-gig saved on DTS-HD. Obviously, since the others are already losslessly compressed, the biggest gains come over PCM, where FLAC can shave 3.72GB off the size of the 2001 MKV – enough for another couple of DVD rips on my HTPC’s hard drive.