Monday, December 31, 2007

Spend more $ at Blockbuster

If you have Blockbuster's DVD-by-mail service, you may have noticed an increase in your bill.

Last month, the company -- which has been losing money on online movie orders -- raised prices for new customers and some existing ones.

Highest price hikes? Up to 40 percent. The hikes were from $2 to $10and leaves Blockbuster offering plans ranging from $3.99 to $34.99 monthly. Some of the more expensive plans also allow customers to pick up movies in stores.

Blockbuster declined to comment when asked by the Associated Press as to how many of its 3.1 million online subscribers are facing rate increases.

Blockbuster lost half a million online customers in the July-September quarter. Chief Executive James W. Keyes said last month that many of those subscribers were costing his company more than they were worth.

As Blockbuster shed customers, rival Netflix cut costs and added more than a quarter million new subscribers, giving it more than seven million total.

Netflix pioneered the online ordering and mail delivery of rental movies in 1999. Blockbuster followed in 2004, and cut into Netflix's lead during late 2006 and early 2007.

Blockbuster offers several plans for subscribers who order movies online and receive them in the mail. The most popular plan lets customers keep three DVDs at any time and exchange up to five DVDs per month at a local Blockbuster store for a free rental.

That plan rose from $17.99 to $19.99 per month for new customers and some existing ones on Dec. 27, the AP reported.

The top-of-the-line plan, in which customers can keep three DVDs out and get unlimited free in-store exchanges, went from $24.99 to $34.99 per month, a 40 percent increase.

A basic plan that lets subscribers keep one DVD but doesn't entitle them to free in-store exchanges will drop from $4.99 to $3.99 per month.

Netflix plans range from $4.99 to $23.99 per month.

Best games of '07

On the final day of 2007, let's look back at the best games of the year.

1. "Bioshock": It's got a dazzling story, set underwater and involving a social experiment that has gone terribly wrong.

It's a first-person shooter, but it calls on the player to make moral choices. It's a lot different than most of today's bang-bang games, which typically have little consequence -- beyond how many pieces you can blow the bad guy into.

2. "Halo 3": The most hyped game of the year marked the end of a trilogy of great games.

Its opening-week grosses rivaled that of blockbuster films and made a fictional video game character (Master Chief) into a household name for the first time since Lara Croft of the "Tomb Raider" series. Some critics didn't think the third edition did enough to satisfy. I thought it was brilliant.

3. "Rock Band": This next evolution of "Guitar Hero" includes lead and bass guitars, drums, a microphone and a varied catalog of songs to perform. Get some buddies, add another guitar and a few singers, and check out the best multiplayer game of the year.

I'd like to see future "Rock Band" titles include other genres of music, like country and R&B, even rap.

4. "The Orange Box": You get five PC games in one, each painting a pretty bleak and descriptive picture of Earth after it has been devastated by aliens. It was too much quality gaming in one box to leave off this list. And call it the PC title of the year.

5. "Super Mario Galaxy": Yes, it's simple to play. Yes, the storyline is a retread (Mario saves the world). But bouncing around the galaxy with everybody's favorite plumber is still fun. And Nintendo managed to make him feel fresh again by changing his environment.

6. "Madden 08": A huge improvement over recent years.

Better news is that EA Sports promises to concentrate on atmosphere next year, to make the experience feel more realistic. Hopefully, that includes bringing back John Madden and Al Michaels to handle play-by-play and some pre- and post-game shows.

7. "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare": A great shooter in a year of good ones. You play as a U.S. Marine and a British S.A.S, fighting in real locations around the world. Everything looks authentic.

8. "Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass": The best handheld game of the year showed up on the Nintendo DS. How in the world did Nintendo put this much "game" in a handheld? Lead character Link battles pirates at sea and land, searching for hidden treasure.

9. "Mass Effect": You're the only human agent in a galaxy-wide police force that doesn't trust humans. You're also fighting a threat that could destroy life as you know it. Full of "Star Trek"-like moral choices and exploration. Beautifully drawn, too.

10. "College Hoops 2K8": This is college basketball done about as well as I've seen. This was the best-looking sports game of the year, with realistic sound effects and lifelike players and coaches.

System of the year

Microsoft Xbox 360: Although it was threatened by Nintendo Wii and a faster-charging PS3 -- which is finally getting the software it needs -- Bill Gates' favorite box persevered.A lot of this had to do with the release of several great exclusive games (like "Halo 3"). And it helps having the best online experience for a console, by far.

Duds of the year

"Beowulf"; "Tenchu Z"; "Transformers: The Game"; "Star Trek: Conquest"; "Vampire Rain."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

PBS-HD coming to DirecTV

DirecTV will soon add public television station signals across the country in high definition, the company said today.

DirecTV, the nation's HD leader with 87 national high-def channels, has a carriage agreement with the Association of Public Television Stations and the Public Broadcasting Service. DirecTV viewers will have access to other Public Television content as well.

DirecTV currently offers local HD programming in 68 markets, representing more than 72 percent of U.S. TV households. Charlotte is one of those markets, though viewers here cannot get the local CW affiliate, WJZY, Channel 46, and Channel 55 in HD without an off-air antenna.

Los Angeles recently added two new HD stations and DirecTV began carrying them this week, marking the fourth area nationally where it carried all six major commercial network affiliates.

"We are thrilled to be partnering with APTS and PBS to offer our customers award-winning HD programming from local Public Television stations across the country," said DirecTV president Chase Carey. "This agreement is the result of a cooperative effort that will utilize innovative technology to deliver the highest quality local content to DIRECTV viewers."

APTS President & CEO John Lawson said: "This is a forward-looking, innovative agreement for the digital age. It means the great HD programming from PBS and local Public Television stations will be available to DIRECTV customers in every market where DIRECTV carries any local HD. We will also work together to make available a vast library of on demand content from local Public Television stations across the country. This is a great day for public service media in America."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Your official HDTV buying guide.....with video

If you're about to go out and buy the family that 50-inch flat screen you've been eyeing, I say congratulations. You'll love your new HDTV.

But wait. There is lots of confusing lingo out there. Do you want Plasma, LCD or DLP? What about all those numbers you hear about: 720P or 1080i or 1080P? And how much to spend? You'll see some $1,000 50-inch sets and other 50-inch sets that cost upwards of $6,000.

In HDTVs, as with most anything else, you get what you pay for. That $1,000 Costco model is not going to look as good as the Pioneer Elite you get from a high end store (with the high end price). But unless you have that super high end model in your home or are a real videophile, you're probably not going to know the difference. So don't get caught up in side-to-side comparisons at Best Buy between the one you want and the one you should buy. The one you want does look better. At home, you'll only have one and it will blow you away. Now, if you're upgrading to a new HDTV and coming out of an older one, your equation certainly changes.

My guess is everyone knows where they fall there.

For most newbies, though, upgrading to HD will be a quantum leap over that's 27-inch 250-pound behemoth sitting on that 10-year old stand (with the glass casing cracked or missing).

Here's a few easy basics. Choose the progressive TVs (1080P or 720P) over interlaced ones (1080i). They look better. If you're buying 40 inches or larger, buy plasma, they look better. If you have an extra bright room, consider LCD.

DLP sets are cheaper but are bulkier. You cannot hang them on the wall and they don't look as good as plasma or LCD.

Last, people will tell you there's no difference between 1080P and 720P, at least at longer distances. Yes and no. The 1080P set costs more and can render full resolution HD from videogame and HD-DVD and Blu-Ray sources. And while your eye cannot see a huge resolution difference from 8 feet between competing 720P and 1080P models, the newer 1080Ps can render more colors, better blacks and simply look better.

And now to the video. Get your notebooks ready.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Here's the HD trailer for Batman, the Dark Knight

Here is the high definition trailer for the new Batman movie, due summer 2008. Looks pretty good.

What do you think?

(Thanks to reader Joe C. of Weddington for the link).

NFL Sunday Ticket special promotion

OK football fans, you can get a pretty cool deal right now.

If you sign up for NFL Sunday Ticket for the last few weeks of this season, you'll also get the entire 2008 season for $269.

Sunday Ticket allows customers to see out-of-market NFL games weekly. Most games are also available in HDTV, for those with HDTV channels and packages through DirecTV's satellite service. To get the HD games, customers need to subscribe to a special $99 package that is an addition to the regular Sunday Ticket sub.

New `America's Army' has look, feel of real warfare

There are so many tactical shooters on the market right now that I wasn't very excited when another showed up for me to review this week.

But "America's Army: True Soldiers" (Rated T for Teen) -- which was co-developed with the U.S. Army -- saved me from being burned out.

This Xbox 360 game is brought to you by publisher Ubisoft and developer Red Storm Entertainment. Red Storm is best known for its work on Tom Clancy's "Ghost Recon" and "Rainbow Six" franchises, and I think it has another hit on its hands.

Game cover man Tommy Rieman, a sergeant who won a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, worked with Red Storm to create a high level of authenticity in "True Soldiers' " real-world scenarios.

Essentially, this game offers a pretty good taste of what joining the Army might be like. Graphics are spot-on, and the action is fast. In the single-player mode, you can go from basic training to fighting the war on terror -- and it takes real skill to move up to rifleman or sniper.

But what's coolest about this game is that when you and your soldier are good and ready, you can take that specific character onto Xbox Live. Also, online players can reward you with points for honorable actions that help you move up the Army ranks. (As with most war games, "True Soldiers" is more fun with multiple players.)

One other thing worth noting: Parents can tailor settings to make the game appropriate for a range of ages.

Grade: B-plus.

Review: Cardo S-800 Bluetooth headset

The latest trend in Bluetooth wireless headsets is models that are small enough to fit snugly without needing to actually wrap around your ear.The S-800 will do that, but I found it more comfortable with the ear loop attached. The headset dampens outside noise very well, so the experience is perfectly fine when talking to friends via cell-phone -- or the PS3's gaming network (the S-800 pairs easily with the console).

The unit comes with a standard AC adapter and a USB cable to charge from a computer, which is a nice touch. It weighs less than half an ounce. It'll swap easily between two mobile phones and the PS3. You can also auto-answer calls, switch to a conference-call mode, or dial the last number called by using buttons on the headset (so you don't have to touch your phone).

My favorite feature is a headset location buzzer that you can activate from your paired phone when you lose the thing -- and I briefly lost the thing. Retail is $90, but it can be found for less than $50 online.

Grade: A.

Review: Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3

Rated T for Teen, this sequel to last year's hit fighting game is all about more fighting and fast thumb-twitching.

There are more than 150 heroes and villains to fight with. There are 20 levels. You can also re-create some of the battles from the TV show.

I tried the Wii version, and this year, it has online capability (though I had trouble getting a game -- a problem I never have via Xbox's or Sony's online systems).

This title brings back the fun of those side-scrolling fighters we loved so much on Sega Genesis and Dreamcast. Nothing exceptional, but still thoroughly enjoyable.

Grade: B.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

College Hoops 2K8 rocks, baby

It's college basketball season. Time for late-night West Coast games, buzzer-beaters, Billy Packer and Dick Vitale.

It's also time for college basketball video game simulations. And after an impressive season of NBA games, I was curious to see what we'd get with the college versions.

The first one I've tried this year is 2K Sports' "College Hoops 2K8" (rated E for Everyone), which is the follow-up to the top seller in this category last year. I tried the Xbox 360 version, but it's also available for PS2 and PS3.

I tried it out in my friend's basement, where he's got a 58-inch 1080p Panasonic plasma HDTV (the best TV reasonable money can buy) and a state-of-the-art sound system with seven speakers.

The graphics just keep getting better and the frame rate is excellent. This game, like many of the recent sports titles, can really fool you into thinking you're watching a real game. Part of that was the TV. Part of it was the attention to detail utilized by 2K Sports, which has completely redesigned its game arenas to make them look deeper, bigger and more realistic.

It also sounded great in Dolby Digital, from the pep bands and announcers right down to the sneaker squeaks.

The thing that most impressed me was the gameplay. The players move like the real thing, and don't slide around. If you ask the controller to turn left, you turn left -- sharply, without any oversteer. And home-team advantage really plays a role: You get it going, and the crowd can get loud.

The hard rap soundtrack may bother a few gamers, but that's about the only thing I could find wrong at first blush. It gives you nearly everything you can ask for.

Grade: A.

Review: `The Golden Compass'

Sega has released this for all game console platforms and PCs. The game (rated E for Everyone) is based on the new movie of the same name.

You play as Lyra, a young girl out to rescue her uncle and her kidnapped best friend. Lyra takes off on her mission with her pet, Pan, and a huge polar bear, Iorek -- plus a golden compass, a truth-telling device that gives you crucial information and unlocks bonus content.

There are 11 universes to explore, and this game is awful deep. It plays, to me, as a slightly more mature Mario game that should enthrall younger and older gamers alike.

Grade: B.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Janet Jackson uses 'net "gadgets" to drop hot new single

Eschewing a direct to radio release of her new song, "Feedback," pop icon Janet Jackson has released her track directly to the internet. It's expected to hit radio this weekend.

After disappointing sales of her previous two albums, "Damita Jo" and "20 Y.O." Jackson is making sure to come out with a stronger first single, in terms of radio appeal. Her previous two albums met critical success but did not receive a lot of radio support or Virgin record label support, as she still suffered from backlash from her infamous Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Her videos got very little play on MTV.

Janet is now with Island Records and the new single, Feedback, is a classic club banger with a memorable chorus. It may be just the thing to get her old audience back. It's loud. It's catchy. It's very, um, Janet.

Her last two albums were very very good and perhaps after some folks get a taste of this new single, which will be followed by a world tour in the spring, it may whet their appetite for Jackson's new album, due in February. While they wait, they can check out the past two CDs which most people didn't get a chance to hear.

Click here to hear "Feedback."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Beyonce', DirecTV and MSG-HD

A lot of folks are emailing me asking if DirecTV's new HD upgrade commercial with Beyonce' is any good, or is cheesy, or unnecessary.

I think it hits the mark. Guys are your primary target for this, and not too many guys are going to turn away from this spot or DVR past it. It gets the message across well.

DirecTV is fast approaching 90 HD channels now, and the quality is still remaining high. This week, the satcaster added MSG-HD and Fox Sports NY-HD, both full-time (NY Knick fans rejoice!).

Right now, cable is a distant, distant third and DISH is getting further and further behind in second place while it waits to launch new satellites early next year that will allow it to upgrade its offerings.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Shirtless and red eyed, actor Gary Coleman auctions his GameCube

I'm not sure what to make of this, but a reader sent me an ebay auction link where actor Gary Coleman, famous for his line "What'cha talkin' 'bout Willis" in the hit "Diff'rent Strokes" sitcom, is selling his Nintendo GameCube, topless and red-eyed.

Coleman looks like he needs to go join that group of celebrities trying to kick the drug habit on reality TV.

The auction's initial bid is $165 for a signed GameCube with several games.

Viva Pinata for Windows is smart move

Microsoft Game Studios has done a smart thing this holiday season.

It's ported over the popular "Viva Piñata" from the Xbox 360 to Windows XP and Windows Vista-enabled PCs.

The game, which I enjoyed on the 360 and PC, challenges players to start as a character from the popular Saturday morning cartoon. You then create a world of your own that you use to attract up to 60 piñata species.

Once you have a few "inhabitants," you can personalize your community. Piñatas can get their own name and a tag put on their home turf within your world. You can also customize with costumes and accessories.

I know it may sound simple and boring, but you find yourself constantly tweaking your world and your inhabitants -- and the more inviting your environment, the more elaborate the animals you attract will be. Then, when you do attract newcomers, you have to work to keep them happy.

It's like being a landlord, of sorts, and of course there are some rather evil characters in the game that do their best to make your life difficult.

This is simple, fun and rather addictive.

Grade: B.

Review: `Ghost Squad'

This was a big hit in the arcades in 2004. Now it's available from Sega for the Nintendo Wii. The game supports the new Wii Zapper accessory, and using it here you can easily target on-screen enemies. The game is designed for up to four players and has three mission areas, 25 weapons and 14 uniforms.You play as a member of the Ghost Squad, a Special Forces unit secretly established by the United Nations to combat terrorism. In this game, you have some real-life type missions: releasing hostages, stopping bombs and rescuing the U.S. president.

The game's missions are divided into levels. In each level, you can take different routes, each with differing degrees of difficulty. And the further you advance in a level, the tougher your competition gets. Enemies attack from everywhere. Graphics are good, and the action's fast.

I'm not big on recommending gun games to kids, but for older teens and adults, this one's pretty intense.

Grade: B.

Review: `Masters of Illusion'

I didn't think much of this game until my 7-year-old, Trey, kept playing it on his Nintendo DS. I figured it had to be pretty good.

I tried it and saw that early on the game teaches you to do some simple card tricks and has step-by-step tutorials for 20 different tricks.

You can take the game with you. It acts as an assistant for some of your stunts, and it comes with a magic deck of cards.

Kids learn these tricks quickly, and even I was having fun trying to fool the wife.

Trey thinks it's great. I can't argue.

Grade: A.

Review: `Medal of Honor Airborne'

Electronic Arts claims this multi-platform title is the only first-person shooter that lets players airdrop into combat and land anywhere in an open battlefield.

To me, it just felt like "been there, done that."

The game is well done and beautifully drawn. You're part of a team in World War II tackling some historically true missions. Enemies will advance or retreat depending on how well you do; so will your allies.

The combination of impressive visuals and outstanding AI makes it fun to watch the computer-controlled guys take cover, jump into a building through a window, or leap over a wall.

Kill shots produce real results, and guys will now actually run from grenades instead of just waiting for it to blow up in their faces. (So hold it a little bit, or "cook" it and then toss. Much better results.)

Another hot feature: As you improve your skill with a particular weapon, you gain access to upgrades within that weapon, making it more powerful.

I feel like I've played too many games like this lately. But, then, I can't really say anything was lacking.

Grade: B.

VIDEO GAMES Langston Wertz Jr.
Langston Wertz Jr: 704-358-5133;