Microsoft to Divulge SQL Server ‘Katmai’ Details Tomorrow

I’m a star

This afternoon, Microsoft issued a heads-up to reporters that its chief of the data and storage platform division, Ted Kummert, will be providing new details on the next version of SQL Server, currently code-named “Katmai,” tomorrow during a company business conference.

Besides finally pinning a year (2008) onto the product name, perhaps the most important detail we may learn tomorrow is the role the new SQL Server will play in the next generation server environment, which still has its old code-name, “Longhorn.”

Already, more and more Microsoft products have dependencies on SQL Server functionality; and the company listed a few more of them today, including tighter integration with SharePoint Server and PerformancePoint Server, the company’s planning and analysis toolset. And as Access developers already know, that basic relational database management tool can now be used as a front-end to SQL Server, whereas it was once stuck with the old Jet database engine.

But on the server level, these dependencies rely upon SQL Server to be present in the server; and as its own commercial product suite for database managers, that might not always be a given from an administrator’s perspective. In the current SQLS 2005 incarnation, this is the reason for something called “SQL Server Express” – the basic database engine that all the other tools need.

But will all the planning and redevelopment of SQL Server “Katmai,” including its new support for XML databases, extend to “Express” as well? And will the product line have to be stratified even more?

The first beta test editions for Katmai are expected to be released to developers this upcoming June.

Stringer PS3 has sold 800,000 in Europe

Sony chief executive declares the European launch a resounding success; doesn’t comment on whether the company has hit its global target of 6 million units.

Sony had an estimated 1 million units available for the European launch of the PlayStation 3, 165,000 of which were sold in the UK during the launch weekend. Sony has so far been tight-lipped over further figures, but yesterday CEO Howard Stringer said the console had reached 800,000 sell-through in the European region, reports the Financial Times.

Stringer, speaking at the Spider-Man 3 movie premiere in Japan, told journalists that he believed that the sell-through in Europe was now “close to 800,000.” He also said that in the first two days on the market in the UK, £100 million in revenue “changed hands.”

“We came into the [European] market with more games, and perhaps we lived up to the expectations in Europe in a way that perhaps we didn’t in Japan,” he said.

However, Stringer did not mention whether or not Sony had hit its target of shipping 6 million units worldwide.

Sega Rally Impressions

Sega Rally, we’re told, is the Japanese publisher’s most successful arcade game ever. We sat in Sega’s UK offices, and our excitement at seeing the PlayStation 3 version in action was temporarily put on hold. Sega Rally is more successful than Daytona? Virtua Cop? The House of the Dead? What about the millions of yen that have been pumped into Virtua Fighter machines in Japan? Apparently, those amount to small change; there’s a Sega Rally machine somewhere in the UK that has single-handedly swallowed three-quarters of a million pounds.

Deformable terrain means that each consecutive lap is subtly different from the last.

This all means that there’s a lot riding on any new version of Sega’s most successful arcade franchise. Only a few years ago, you would have probably expected the company to keep development in-house at one of its internal studios in Japan. A lot has changed for Sega recently though, and the seemingly risk-embracing company has done surprising things of late. The same company that’s currently developing an Olympics game featuring one-time archrival Mario has also put the future of the Sega Rally series in the hands of an unproven British outfit called Sega Racing Studio. Perhaps it’s not that crazy though; Sega Europe is now a major part of the overall operation with little to prove thanks to its canny acquisitions of Sports Interactive and The Creative Assembly.

Sega Racing Studio may be new, but the team that’s overseeing development for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC comprises some of Britain’s leading talent. Ex-employees of Codemasters and Rare made the relatively small geographical relocation to Solihull in the British Midlands, and the technology for the game has been built from the ground up by a team of more than 50 staff members. Perhaps most notably, the head of the studio is Guy Wilday, who worked on the original Colin McRae Rally games over at Codemasters.

It’s clear that the focus for the new Sega Rally has been on returning to the arcade roots of the series while bringing the technology firmly up to date. The game looks graphically impressive, with an engine that throws around beautiful scenery, track deformation, and incidental details with ease–even if the frame rate suffered in this pre-alpha build. The demo we saw ran on PlayStation 3 hardware at about 20 frames per second, but the team hopes to get that up to 60fps during optimisation. While that seems particularly ambitious given the level of detail, the original Sega Rally’s sense of speed was arguably more important than its visuals. Still, it’s good to see the team replicate the little touches that made the original so great, such as the helicopters that film you from above and the birds that emerge startled from the trees as you zoom by them.

While such flourishes as these certainly add to the atmosphere, it’s the track deformation that’s lining up to be Sega Rally’s unique selling point. While it’s not totally unique in the racing genre, thanks to fellow British title MotorStorm, it’s the first time that anything of this level has been seen in a rally game. In fact, it’s so impressive that it was the first thing that Sega decided to show us using the in-game engine. Tyres compact the top layers of sun-baked mud by passing over them at 80mph on the first lap, giving way to damp mud that can impair progress on the second lap. MotorStorm players will already be familiar with this concept, but Sega Rally has one more trick up its sleeve: It also throws water into the mix. The tropical track in the demo was particularly water-logged, and as we saw the Subaru Impreza pulling donuts in the mud, the water began spreading to fill up the crevices. With all of this taking place on a next-generation console, the water also begins to wash your car clean, leaving you to appreciate the two-toned paintwork once again.

The pacific race shown in our demonstration highlighted Sega Rally’s attention to detail.

With all this hyperrealism in the graphics department, it’s even more striking to see Sega Rally’s retro approach to gameplay. With Codemasters offering a full-on rally simulation this year with DiRT: Colin McRae Off Road (DiRT in the US), Sega Racing Studio has wisely chosen to stay true to the arcade roots of the series. While the cars will physically deform, they won’t be subjected to mechanical damage, which means that the vehicle you finish the race with will be physically as good as your first vehicle. The designers didn’t want one big crash to force you to restart a race in single-player mode or make you feel like you could never catch up in multiplayer. Consequently, computer opponents have been programmed to be devious and aggressive, nudging you around corners and crashing into you from behind.

Damage will also take place to the environmental details, and if you crash into a wooden hut or a wall of tyres, they will remain on the track for the next lap. While we only got to see a tropical environment in our particular demonstration, the developers also promise more traditional European racing surfaces, such as tarmac and snow. The camera system offers two on-car views on the bumper and bonnet, as well as two outside views, but we suspect rally fans would also like to see a detailed in-car view. At least they should appreciate the realism that Sega has tried to achieve in car design, with a tarmac-specification Subaru lighter than a safari-spec one, which will also have an effect on the level of land deformation.

Above anything else, the original Sega Rally was memorable for its head-to-head multiplayer mode, so any updated version must get this aspect right. While we didn’t get to see it in action at our demonstration, the game promises online multiplayer for all platforms, subject to certain conditions on the PlayStation 3. It’s worth noting that multiplayer features were recently built into Sega’s Virtua Tennis 3 on the Xbox 360 but not the PlayStation 3, and Racing Studio points out that it will “do what Sony allows” on its platform. Guy Wilday has already gone on record saying tilt-control won’t be built into the PlayStation 3 version. However, Sega representatives said they were still looking into the possibility, even if they said it “didn’t add anything to the experience in MotorStorm.”

Sega Rally is looking very impressive at this stage, and thanks to its arcade leanings, it looks like it can happily coexist with Codemasters’ DiRT. Our one concern is how the team will maintain the series’ notorious speed with a graphics engine this detailed, but it has six months of development time left to figure it out. We’ve still only seen relatively little of the selection of cars and tracks in Sega Rally at this point, so there’s plenty left that we’re itching to explore. You can rest assured we’ll be on Sega’s tail like one of its artificial intelligence drivers up until the game’s release, which is set for winter ’07 on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Raiden III Review PlayStation 2

Enjoyable as it can be in spurts, Raiden III doesn’t do anything unique to stand out from other modern shoot-’em-ups, and that it isn’t priced at a flat-out budget rate is a bit disquieting.

If you know anything about the scrolling shoot-’em-up genre, then all you need is the title of Raiden III to know that it’s the latest in developer Seibu Kaihatsu’s long-running shoot-’em-up series. Raiden III hit arcades back in 2005, but only now has it come to home consoles in this PlayStation 2 update. The gameplay is basically untouched, but a few additional modes have made it into the mix to give the game an iota of value beyond its challenging but fleeting arcade mode. However, longtime shoot-’em-up fans won’t find much new or original about Raiden III. It takes the exact same formula found in every other modern scrolling shooter, tweaks it ever so slightly, and then calls it a day. Certainly the game can be fun, even with its total lack of originality, but at the $30 price point that it’s running for at retail, you’d hope for some kind of unique quality to help make up for the inherent shallowness of the package.

Remember the purple laser from Raiden II? Now it’s green. Thanks Seibu Kaihatsu!

Most shoot-’em-ups have some sort of gimmick or concept that sets them apart from the rest–at least the good ones do–and the Raiden series is no exception. The Raiden gimmick has to do with weapon selections. As you progress through a level, power-ups for your ship’s primary guns and secondary missiles will appear from time to time, and each of these icons changes in color or symbol after a bit of time left floating around the screen. Primary weapons include a powerful laser that shoots straight ahead, a slightly less powerful laser that can be waved from side to side, and a weaker spread gun that can cover a lot more of the screen. Missiles work on similarly, with powerful nukes that shoot straight forward, less powerful radar missiles that will take an angle to a certain enemy, and weaker heat-seekers that will shoot every which way. Each and every one of these selected weapons can be upgraded over time into more powerful versions as you collect these icons. If you happen to grab an icon that’s different from the weapon you’re set on, it’ll switch you to the new weapon, and so if you have a particular fancy for a certain weapon, you’ve got to be careful when you grab the icons.

Oh, and you shoot bad guys, too. A lot of them. Like any scrolling shooter worth its salt, Raiden III is jam-packed with enemy ships, boats, tanks, and all sorts of big, honking bosses, and they all fire plenty of bullets and lasers in your general direction. You’ll spend as much time dodging bullets as you will firing them yourself, and the challenge of doing so gets pretty overwrought at times. Of course, this is par for the course for a scrolling shooter, and Raiden III isn’t necessarily any tougher or easier than most games of this type. In fact, not much of what you’re up against feels unfamiliar. The firing patterns and enemy types all feel, again, par for the course. That’s not to say the shooting action isn’t enjoyable, because it certainly is. When you get a set of weapons built up to max capacity, it can feel pretty epic as you blast away at anything that comes within range of you. All told, the game plays solid enough, but it’s boilerplate in practically every way.

The features set doesn’t do much to counteract this feeling. The main arcade mode can be beaten in about a half hour if you get good enough at the game, and though there are multiple difficulty settings, everything above normal is so decidedly masochistic that all but the most hardcore players will scoff at them. Heck, even normal is pretty hard. Of course, games like Raiden III are built to be played over and over again for scoring purposes, but with no online leaderboards, the inspiration to continually work on your score isn’t exactly high. Beyond the main game, there are basic score attack and boss rush modes to play around with (the latter of which has to be unlocked), as well as a replay mode that will save individual performances of various stages. You just save the data at the end of a level and go back and watch it any time you please. It’s kind of a neat feature, but again, the lack of any online functionality makes it a little pointless unless you really like watching your past performances all by your lonesome, or you drag a friend over.

Speaking of friends, yes, Raiden III does support two-player cooperative play, which is really the ideal way to play the game. There’s also a mode that lets you control both ships on one controller, though doing so is rather awkward as far as steering is concerned, and trying to keep track of both ships is one of those chaotically crazy things that you basically have to be some kind of savant to pull off. This one’s for the most insanely skilled players only.

The boss encounters aren’t all that memorable in Raiden III, which is really a shame, since the previous games had some pretty stellar bosses.

One area where Raiden III really fails to impress is in terms of presentation. No one expects a shooter like this to reach for the moon with its graphics, but Raiden III looks ancient, even compared with years-old shooters like Ikaruga and Gradius V. The environments look bland and washed out. The ships and explosions are decent looking, though they’re also highly pixelated and grainy. The frame rate at least holds up, if nothing else. The game’s audio consists of some decent sound effects and a solid soundtrack of synthesized tunes, but nothing stands out.

You can’t argue with the notion that Raiden III does what it does decently, at least from a gameplay perspective. The shooting action pops just about as well as any other modern take on the scrolling shooter genre, and the challenge is most certainly there. However, Raiden III also doesn’t do anything beyond this. It’s functional, and fun for a bit, but once you’ve played through the arcade mode a few times and tried out the scant few ancillary modes, you’ll be done with it. There’s no hook here to bring you back, nor is the gameplay exceptional enough to leave a lasting impression once you’ve had your initial fill. Maybe that won’t matter to the few dedicated Raiden series fans out there who have been dying for a new Raiden game to hit North America for years (after all, it’s not like you can just go out and buy Raiden or Raiden II these days), but at the oddly expensive price of $30 for what is, in essence, a budget game, you will need to be an exceedingly hardcore fan to make this purchase justifiable.

Galaga Review

Galaga for the Virtual Console is a perfect emulation of an imperfect port–the clunky NES version doesn’t do Namco’s shooter the justice it deserves.

Galaga’s most famous form is as a classic arcade shooter that built upon Namco’s Galaxian, which, of course, built on Taito’s Space Invaders. Galaga has been reissued for Nintendo’s Wii as part of the downloadable Virtual Console service. But this is one of those cases where you wish that it were called the Virtual Arcade service, because playing the subpar NES port of Galaga only makes you want to play the arcade version that much more.

No–for the last time, there’s no way to combine all three ships into some kind of crazy triple ship.

It’s not that the emulation is inaccurate. Nope, this seems to be the same version of Galaga that Bandai and Namco teamed up to release in the US with the needless subtitle “Demons of Death” attached to it. And most of the arcade gameplay is intact. Alien craft dive-bomb in your ship’s direction, laying down bullets all the while. And the nefarious leaders can cruise down and attempt to capture your ship, turning it against you. Of course, that’s where you really turn the tables on the invaders by freeing your captured ship and docking it with another, giving you double firepower. The challenging stages– bonus levels that ask you to shoot down waves of nonfiring enemy ships that approach in formation–are also intact. While it sounds good on paper, the execution was lacking back in the 1980s, and it’s still lacking today. Enemy movement doesn’t look smooth at all. The sound gets the same basic notes down, but the NES hardware sounds more stripped-down than that of the original arcade game. So, yes, this is a complete port of the arcade game, but none of it captures the feel of the arcade game. The result is a passable shooter that comes across as completely ordinary and charmless, devoid of the nostalgia that makes the coin-op game worth playing today. You could probably spend 500 Wii points in a more careless fashion, but this one’s definitely down toward the bottom of the list.

If you’re absolutely bent on playing Galaga on your Wii, you’re going to have trouble finding something that’s absolutely perfect, but your best bet is to sidestep this pale imitator and get something a little closer to the real deal, which is contained on Namco Museum 50th Anniversary for the GameCube.

New Tiger Woods teed up

Though word only hit the public yesterday that development on Electronic Arts’ Tiger Woods PGA Tour series was now being handled by EA Tiburon, the franchise has apparently been in Florida long enough to get a tan and a few new features.

EA officially announced Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 today, the first golf project for the studio that develops the Madden NFL, NCAA Football, and Nascar games for EA. Working on the game will be the team formerly of Hypnotix (Outlaw Golf, Outlaw Volleyball), which was acquired by EA in 2005.

Tiger Woods 08 is due out for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, and DS. At a media event in Florida, EA revealed that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game will support a pair of new features that expand avatar customization and foster an online community.

Using a Sony EyeToy or Xbox Live Vision camera, gamers will now be able to map their faces on their digital golfer with Photo Game Face, which is similar to the system used in Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Vegas. Alternatively, photos from a digital camera can also be uploaded and used in the same fashion.

Golfers looking to do some bragging can share their greatest highlights with others with the new GamerNet feature. Single shots, holes, or even a full round of golf can be uploaded to servers for others to view. In addition, EA is taking the idea one step further and allowing users to create their own challenges and upload them for others to take on. Points are earned for both creating and completing challenges, and leaderboards will keep track of the top performers in both categories.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 is scheduled to be released in late summer. For more on the game, read GameSpot’s hands-on preview from EA Tiburon.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance DLC late to the rescue

Following reports of problems, someone claiming to be an Activision producer admits the superhero RPG’s Xbox 360 update is still being worked on.

On Tuesday, several new content updates were supposed to be available for the Xbox 360 version of Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Foremost among these was a Heroes Pack, which would add the iconic comic-book do-gooders the Hulk (the various Hulk comic books), Hawkeye (The Avengers), and Nightcrawler and Cyclops (both from X-Men) to the game.

A Villains Pack was also planned to be available. It would add evildoers Doctor Doom (Fantastic Four), Venom (Spider-Man), and Sabretooth and Magneto (also both from X-Men) to the game. Both packs were to cost 500 Microsoft points ($6.25) separately or be sold together for 800 Microsoft points ($10).

However, the launch did not go as smoothly as planned. After reports surfaced on the official Xbox forums outlining that the updates were damaging game saves, someone claiming to be Activision producer Matthew Paul posted a message explaining that the content is still being worked on.

“I wanted you to know that we are still wrapping up QA on the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Heroes and Villains XBL DLC so it isn’t out yet as some of you might have read,” said the poster. “We are working hard to finalize the packs and will let you know a new release date shortly.”

As of press time, Activision had not confirmed the post’s authenticity, although Marvel: Ultimate Alliance does indeed have a producer named Matthew Paul. As of Thursday morning PDT, the packs were still not available on Marketplace.

Gears of War Annex Hands-on

Epic supports its fans and its games well after the launch. This week Epic delivered on its promises by adding to the award-winning third-person tactical shooter by handing gamers a new mode of play — Annex. And just like that, new life is breathed into the most popular Xbox 360 game on Live.

The new mode is not only excellent in its own right, it’s free. Just boot up the game, agree to receive the new content, and in about 20 seconds it’s yours. Now that’s what I call classy.

Prior to this download, Gears only offered three modes of multiplayer modes: Warzone, Execution, and Assassination, all of which are variants of team deathmatch. Most people just played Warzone. Even though it’s only one new mode, for Gears, Annex feels like an entirely new game. Annex plays like Territories, a kind of moving King of the Hill game. The idea is to locate and hold a territory, indicated by a small glowing circle, to squeeze out as many as 60 points from its lifecycle before moving onto the next randomly selected location. When you control the circle it changes from either red (Locusts), the other team’s color, or white, which indicates neutral, to your own, blue (for Cogs).

The color red indicates the Locust currently own the circle.

Once the circle disappears, it reappears in another spot, wherever special weapons re-spawn, and remains there until it’s fully captured. Since the circles appear at the same point as a special weapon the lingo reflects the weapon, therefore if the spot appears next a sniper weapon, players call sniper side, if it shows next to grenades, you call grenade side.

A locator remains on-screen indicating where the hot spot is, so locating one isn’t problematic or a waste of time. This locator encircles the counter, and the arrow moves as you do. Inside the circle you can see which team owns the spot because it fills up with that team’s color until it’s completely full, which is when the timer starts ticking. On the map, players will have to stay inside the colored horizontal circle for about five seconds to activate it. Once it has started you can leave the circle to protect it from outside, using offense as the best defense. Of course, if you don’t watch your backside, you’re in trouble.

While Annex doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does make Gears feel brand new. And since there are re-spawns, this mode is actually the best mode in the game. What makes it so likeable is simple. Gears is a fun online game but it begged for more diversity. Annex changes the dynamics just enough to inject Gears with new energy. It works on all maps, including the free downloadable ones, Raven Down and Old Bones, and unlike the one-life deathmatch games, you’ll have infinite re-spawns in 15-second waves. The options are even a little better. The default setup consists of winners grabbing all 240 points (4 x 60 seconds holding a spot), but you can switch things up. Drop the point count to 120 to 480 if you like and switch maps more often.

Owning the spot is actually more important than kills, encouraging even more teamwork.

The first session I played, we used the same map over and over again with the winning team needing five wins to take the round. This made for a good experience simply because if you are new or you forgot the ins and outs of the map like I did, the repetition pummels you until it becomes second nature. When I played again last night we changed the maps every single round, but the point total was higher, so the balance spread out the length of each game, which made for re-spawns and more opportunities. Fact is, I became a better player because I was able to get back into the mix more often then sitting on the sidelines and hoping the round would end.

I know this is short and sweet, but Epic’s little extra mode is a real spark for Gears. I stopped played the game months ago just because of the lack of diversity and now all I want to do is play more Gears. I’ll go so far as to say that Epic’s extra mode is easily the best mode in the game. If you like Gears even a little bit, download this and start playing Annex. It’s not only a great mode, it’s free. Thank you, Epic, you made my Gears come true.

Live Search 3D to Support Firefox

Microsoft released an update to its Live Search Maps product on Tuesday, adding 3D support for Firefox users as well as several new features in its effort to continue building search share in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.

In addition to 3D support in Firefox, 16 new cities will now be available in 3D including San Diego, California and Portland, Oregon. Microsoft has also added the functionality to the aerial maps of five UK cities, which include Plymouth, Cardiff, Bristol, Gloucester, and Wolverhampton.

In select cities where traffic information is available, when a user calls up directions, that data would be overlayed which will negate the need to perform a separate search. Currently, Live Search provides traffic data for about five dozen cities, according to the Live Search site.

For those looking for more information on business listings within Live Search maps, ratings and reviews of those businesses would be included, supplied by third-party sites and fellow users.

An RSS feature will allow users to subscribe to a collection, which will then allow them to receive updates on those collections as they appear, Microsoft said. Further integration with Live Search similar to what Google already does has also been added.

“For example, if you type in Las Vegas in the Live Search bar, a map of Las Vegas will be included at the top of your Live Search results,” a Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews.

Google Corrects Katrina Image Switch

After a barrage of negative publicity surrounding its decision to replace aerial images of areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina with pre-storm photos, Google has switched the images back.

Missing however is any explanation why the images were modified in the first place, other than to say that the pre-storm images provided much higher-resolution than those post-Katrina.

The move even caught the eye of Congress, with Democratic House Science Oversight Subcommittee chair Brad Miller of North Carolina accusing the company of “airbrushing history.” Miller has also asked Google in a letter demanding an explanation why the images were changed, and if somebody asked them to be modified.

“Make no mistake, this wasn’t any effort on our part to rewrite history,” Google Maps director John Hanke said. “But it looks like this April Fool’s joke was on us.” Hanke said the company expedited getting new high-resolution images of the area, which were available as of Sunday night.

A spokesperson for Miller’s office said that the Congressman still expects a response regardless of Google’s actions to remedy the situation. The Mountain View, Calif. company was expecting to send a reply sometime Monday.

It did highlight that the changes were made in September of last year. “Given that the changes that affected New Orleans happened many months ago, we were a bit surprised by some of these recent comments,” Hanke added.

He also said that the goal of the image change was to provide the best quality aerial images possible.