X-Box Audio Chip — The Explanation

Microsoft is taking very good care it seems, of an oft-ignored part of console design — the sound. In the past, console manufacturers have gone with off-the-shelf solutions (usually Yamaha, in fact) and Nintendo’s last console didn’t even have a real audio chip. As a result, much of the N64’s processing power is taken up with audio functions. Microsoft’s Audio manager, Chanel Summers explains to Daily Radar that she is making sure that doesn’t happen this time around.

At the unveiling of the X-Box during the Game Developers Conference in March, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates joked that the processor was so secret, even he didn’t know what it was. While Microsoft still hasn’t named the device, the company has started to unveil details. One thing we now know, is that the sound chip will share the 64 Megs of unified memory and may include some of its own. But here’s Microsoft’s ace in the hole: while the PS2 can generate very convincing noises and tunes from a stunning 48 channel chip, the X-Box will feature a staggering 256 total stereo voices. Overkill? Tommy Tallarico, president of his eponymous game music company thought so when the system was announced as having only 64 voices, saying, “How many channels of sound do you really need?”

The ping pong demo debuted in San Jose in March.
Chanel Summers counters this apparent overkill by explaining that “as graphics quality gets better and sound isn’t catching up, the sound can actually make your great quality graphics seem worse. So it’s that thing where you need the whole, complete experience. We can’t have these rich textures, amazing polygon counts and then just think about sound at the last minute.”

It’s certainly true that sound technology hasn’t kept pace with the graphics. Microsoft will not announce the manufacturer of the chip at this point, but there are only a few candidates; Yamaha, Creative Labs, Aureal (gone now, but still viable technology) and even Roland. Who makes the chip however, is less important than the fact that Microsoft is giving this so much energy and attention. Sony’s chip is no slouch, but now seems underpowered by comparison. It is ironic given the fact that Sony’s Ken Kutaragi designed the sound chip for the Super NES (one of the best ever) and that very project inspired him to eventually create the PlayStation.

The famous koi pond butterflies
Summers is quick to point out the failings of rival consoles in the audio department, saying “if you look at the PlayStation2, and not to mention that it only has 48 channels versus our 256, but the composer has 2 Megs of RAM to create some kind of compelling score. That’s just not possible. With our unified memory architecture, you have 64 Megs of RAM, and sure, that’s going to be split up for other functions, but if you wanted, you could use the whole 64 megs for music. You have that choice, we have that capability.” While a composer would obviously never devote all of the system RAM to music, the flexibility, 3D capabilities, and the storage of a hard drive will certainly lead to interesting audio possibilities.

Although Microsoft won’t elaborate, it seems that negotiations to include the brand-name standards (Dolby Digital, DTS etc) are still underway. Seamus Blackley, Microsoft’s director of advanced technology, will only say, “We will be very serious about sound standards. I think your readers will be pleased.”

Microsoft isn’t just planning a fancy chip, it is going to support its third parties with a variety of proprietary Microsoft audio tools. Summers explains, “The primary audio APIs on X-Box will be DirectMusic and DirectSound. And that again is value that other consoles can’t provide. With DirectMusic, you’ll be able to have interactive music and sound, with a lot of console and PC games the music is just wallpaper — it plays in the background. You can either stream it or play Redbook audio. But now we can have an immersive environment where the music plays a role in the experience and isn’t just something that kind of hangs out.”

Hopefully the company will reveal the manufacturer during E3, as well as other specifics of their new machine. Stay tuned to X-Box Radar for complete coverage.

Little Giant of Simulation Games in SimCity Buildit

Back in 2014, Maxis team went into beta with an experiment of sorts. The experiment was venturing into SimCity mobile version. Originally called SimCity mobile, the game evolved into SimCity Buildit, a top-down simulation game ported from the 2013’s version. (The comparison, it should be noted, is based completely on observation and not gameplay.) Unlike anything else at the time and still quite unique today, SimCity Buildit was released commercially in November 2014 with little fanfare. Lack of advertising didn’t help, but the rabid fan base developed during the beta test almost guaranteed the game’s underground success. The publisher, EA, pulled support for the game in early 2015, and that’s when the players took over. To this day, every zone, every website and every bit of information about this game comes from the players, and there are still several thousand playing.

So what’s the big deal? Why are people still playing a technologically and graphically outdated game? In a word, gameplay. This game is the epitome of substance over style. The graphics, while by no means ugly, are definitely dated. There’s no rockin’ techno intro, there’s no fancy 3D dogfighting, and there’s no enormous system requirement either. What it lacks in flash is more than made up for in depth. Throughout the numerous zones (maps and mods to veterans), players can choose to play solo or with others online. While on the surface this game is as simple as the oft-compared-to Cities XXL, the depth is realized through consistent gameplay.

At its most basic level, SimCity Buildit is a modern version of the (very) classic SimCity. This may sound confusing, and for the first week or so, it is. The controls are not remappable. (No contortion is necessary with touchscreens). Since there’s no theoretical limit to the number of players in any particular zone, there can be 10 players in one zone while there are 250 or more in another. It can all get quite hectic very quickly.

Finally, the coup d’etat of SimCity Buildit is the chat interface. This alone is probably responsible for much of the staying power of the game. Players are free to log on and simply spectate (sit in spec, as it were), where there’s usually a conversation of some sort going on. While this game has its share of KeWl D00Dz (just like any online game), for the most part the people in the game are at least civil. Many have made lasting friendships through the game’s interface, simply because of its flexibility. Players are free to talk in public, talk privately, use team chats, use squad chats (the two are different), then join up to five different chat channels and speak on those as well. There’s no other game in existence with such a comprehensive chat interface, and navigating it is a breeze with a little practice. Often, players log on only to chat, and some will spectate for hours. There’s no penalty for this, and maps are not recycled every 10 minutes or so as on an FPS game.

So why should anyone give this game a look? If you want free thrills and enjoy excellent gameplay, it won’t hurt to download the file. Some precautions should be taken, though. Many of the players in SimCity Buildit have been playing for quite some time. In other words, you will be a newbie and you will get destroyed, especially while you learn the game. There are also many aspects of the game that are simply “understood” by the players, and newcomers have to figure these things out fairly quickly. For additional inputs on the game and its features like unlimited SimCash, visit simcitybuildithack.net.

I strongly urge anyone interested to at least give the game a shot. Again, it’s not eye candy and it’s not for everyone, but those thirsting for a taste of something different will most likely enjoy the game, if only for a few weeks. There’s nothing else like SimCity Buildit, and since it’s all player-run, there’s no telling how long the magic will last. People should at least experience gameplay perfection before it’s history. Few other games have occupied this much time for so many players, and it’s not known whether or not it will happen again, at least when it doesn’t involve elves.

Run Like HELL – A FEATURED GAME

Details have been scarce, but since the E3 announcement and first details of Interplay’s PS2 sci-fi stress-fest RLH (formerly known as Run Like Hell,) gamers have been quaking in their boots — and we are, of course, talking quaking with anticipation. Combining the moody suspense of the fast-stagnating survival horror genre with plenty of ingenuity, the game casts players as one Captain Nick Conner, an ex-soldier who’s about to have the worst week of his life.

Exiled to the space-faring Science Station Forseti, Conner returns from an away mission to find that every person on the ship has been killed — or at least will be shortly. A particularly vicious horde of aliens — dubbed “The Race” — is killing with impunity, playing god with crewmembers’ parts and otherwise tearing things up. Naturally, it’s up to the player to guide Conner through seven harrowing days of action, adventure, running like hell and, ultimately, escape.

Killing aliens is all fine and good, but these aliens are particularly nasty, fast and determined — they even open doors. Scouts, warriors, bruisers and other variants exist, and many of the more dangerous creatures can easily lop off a human head. As if that weren’t gross enough, this head can then be attached to the alien’s own body, allowing it to jack into and lift the human’s memories (we’re guessing they won’t need them anymore, anyway.) Craftier aliens will be able to put discarded human arms to good use — such as typing. Yech.

With fully 3D environments and dynamic camera work, the game already looks fantastic — and truly frightening to boot. Rounding out the game’s amazing visuals is some top-notch sound and voice talent, including beloved sci-fi movie great Lance Henriksen as Nick, Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager fame, and popular Paul Verhoeven movie standby Michael Ironside. Rounding out this considerable crew are Brad Dourif, soon to be starring in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and Clancy Brown, who’s made appearances in such sci-fi greats as Starship Troopers and Highlander. .

In development by the good people at Digital Mayhem, Interplay’s action game division, the game’s been pushed back for a September release. Here’s hoping it won’t get delayed any further — you might say the suspense is killing us. Run like Hell is an old game but if you want something new, you can try Clash Royale. This is a new game. A game by SuperCell. Click here for more.

D-4700M 200 CD Changer – A thing of the Past

Honestly, this is one of the best CD changers we’ve ever had the privilege to use. Kenwood’s 200-disc 4700M is a smart unit that blows away all the competition with its well thought-out features. Not only does it come with a perfectly functional remote, but the box also contains an infrared keyboard that helps plug in disc information and acts as another fully functioning remote. The greatest feature of the 4700M is its most forward-thinking one: the changer can, with the assistance of a null modem cable, hook to a PC or laptop and pull down CD information from the Compact Disc Data Base (CDDB). Although it’s not the newest player on the market (Kenwood put this unit out in early fall), it’s still clearly the leader in the CD changer field.

If you’ve got a large CD collection (this reviewer has over 800 discs taking up too much room at home) [editor’s note: Ooooooooo! Fancy guy!!], you need a multiple CD changer. Don’t talk to us about any of those wussy five, 10 or 25 changers. Fifty discs? Pssht — that’s a start. 100? Now you’re getting interesting. Two hundred is great, but 300 would be even better. In the case of the Kenwood 4700M, we’re willing to go with 200 discs as a trade-off for the player’s amazing features.

The worst part of owning a big tank of a CD changer is actually labeling the CDs once inside the player. Cheaper players get around this by including a notebook for CD liner note booklets, which is more trouble than it’s worth. Other players allow you to tippy-tap in the name of the CD through an ungainly remote interface, akin to dialing names on a telephone. The 4700M blasts straight through this issue with two separate solutions: a remote keyboard and the ability to connect to the Internet.

The keyboard is a separate piece of plastic, just under a foot long by four inches wide. It’s certainly not meant for daily word processing, but it gets the job done when it comes to typing in CD information. Typing in 200 disc names and artists takes one-fifth of the time that it normally would, for which we must salute Kenwood. The keyboard also works as a remote control for the changer, with all necessary features included as separate function buttons. Repeat, random, search, fast forward, pause, mode… everything is clearly marked and easy to operate. Your “significant other” or less fortunate roommate probably won’t want another big hunk of plastic sitting on the coffee table, but the capability is there if you need it.

The overriding reason to buy this changer is the PC connectivity. By hooking up the included cable to your PC, the Kenwood 4700M will talk to your computer. The software, which is freely available on Kenwood’s website, allows you to use the awesome Compact Disc Data Base (aka CDDB) to almost instantly title your CDs for you. The software will search through each one of the discs in your changer and call out to CDDB through the Internet, downloading the name of the album, the artist and even the track information. This is both a godsend and one of the best examples of convergence we’ve seen in consumer electronics. Kenwood’s software also allows you to browse your CD collection, make playlists, set music themes (“party,” “jazz,” “baby makin'”) and create user profiles in order to have the unit play the kind of music that you like to hear, rather than blast your roommate’s crappy punk rock albums.

The appearance of the 4700M doesn’t quite match its abilities. The version we were sent had a silver face that looked kind of cheap (it also comes in a more palatable black). There’s a small timer switch on the left side that looks as though a larger button has broken off. The Disc Skip knob is a long plug of a switch that protrudes a good quarter-inch from the face of the already deep unit. The dot matrix display is perfectly serviceable and bright enough to be read even from across a brightly lit room. The one thing we didn’t like about the changer is that it searches through all the CDs every time you turn it on, which takes a few seconds and doesn’t seem necessary. There’s an optical output on the back for true digital sound, RCA connectors for old-fashioned stereos and Kenwood system controls jacks.