Monday, March 24, 2014

Bark: I love it when students get curious

One of my students sent me an interesting email earlier tonight. I'm not sure that my reply was what they were expecting, but I hope they found it interesting. I've posted it below in the hope that you might find it interesting, too.

Dear Sir,

This email is merely out of curiosity.

I was reading a rather interesting article today about black holes. It was related to the Big Bang Theory, and I was curious about how much store you would put by it. It mentions that the majority of scientists refer to black holes as the 'ultimate Fort Knox' and impenetrable; 'we will never know what its inside a singularity'. This, I thought, was quite true until I read further and found myself quite partial to the ideas of some 'unorthodox' (how the article referred to them as) thinkers, who believe that its becoming increasingly accepted that our universe is not all there is. They defined where we live as a 'multiverse' - a vast collection of universes in the Swiss cheese of reality.

I found this quite interesting, that it is speculated that it is possible to give birth to a new universe through taking matter from another universe, crunching it down and sealing it off - like what a black hole is thought to do. The article goes on to explain how this relates to the Big Bang Theory:

"We do know, after all, what became of at least one singularity. Our universe began, 13.8 billion years ago, in a tremendous big bang. The moment before, everything was packed into an infinitesimally small, massively dense speck - a singularity."

I believe that this is insinuating that the matter of our universe came into being from being crushed matter dragged through a black hole from another universe?

I find this to be very interesting, and out of curiosity, would like to know your opinion. Do you know of this theory? Do you believe it?

[My response]

What a fascinating question!

I am very much aware of multiverse theory, though I don't recall ever seeing it explained in quite that fashion. I've spent quite a lot of time recently  looking into the mysteries of black holes and singularities, as one of my Year 13 students is writing his Extended Project Qualification on them! Singularities, if you'll forgive the pun, are a singular oddity in Physics: we're almost certain that they exist, but we don't have the Physics to describe what they are like, beyond a certain point.

The idea of a black hole has fascinated me for decades: at once both a definable and yet undefinable region in space, with an event horizon, beyond which you cannot observe, and where the normal laws of time, space, energy and reality break down as they get crushed into a zero-dimensional point of infinite density. In the classical and relativistic view (of Einstein) the singularity of a black hole is an enigma, where time and space are warped so violently by the black hole that not even light can escape and as you approach the singularity itself and pass beyond the event horizon (the limit of where you can observe what is going on as you approach the black hole) observable time slows down and even stops at the instant the object you observe meets the event horizon; a ravening monster of physics from which nothing escapes, consuming all matter which dares approach, consigned to a fate of who-knows-what? The modern, quantum-mechanical view of a black hole is even more bizarre - a maelstrom of space-time weirdness whose tidal forces stretch approaching matter like strands of spaghetti, where the space surrounding the event horizon incinerates all matter unfortunate enough to be grasped by its gravitational clutches in a searing firewall of quantum information, and where the event horizon "leaks" Hawking radiation and causing the black hole to gradually lose its mass through mass-energy equivalence "evaporation".

Beyond the event horizon, within the singularity itself, it's probably fair to say that no-one really understands what goes on in there. Once you get inside the event horizon of a black hole, all the equations that describe how matter, energy and forces (including gravity) work in "real" space completely break down and profoundly weird things start to happen - if you try on your calculator to take the square root of a negative number, your calculator will probably go "Nope. Not happening, pal!", because the answer is what mathematicians call an "imaginary number"; That is, the square root of -1 is i. To describe what goes on inside the singularity of a black hole require a time expressed in these imaginary numbers. This is quite a challenging concept to get your head around! Even worse, when you try and figure out what is going on in the spacial dimensions of the singularity, things also get "imaginary", meaning that you can no longer make any distinction between the dimensions of space and time when you get inside the singularity. This, also, is quite a challenging concept! (Hence the "ultimate Fort Knox" comparison!)

Since black holes were officially theorised following the publication of Einstein's Theories of Relativity a hundred years ago, plenty of scientists have tried to come up with theories as to what happens within the singularity itself - and pretty much all of them remain exactly that - theories. This is mainly because it is impossible to "prove" any physical theory - the best you can do is find evidence that fails to disprove the theory. The problem with trying to find evidence for what goes on inside the event horizon of a black hole is that it is, by its very nature, unobserveable though direct means, and secondly, getting close enough to a sufficiently large black hole to make any meaningful observations would be rather hazardous! The best we can do is make indirect observations of supermassive black holes (such as the ones at the centres of galaxies), which are active enough (that is, have enough stellar matter falling into them) for us to try and infer what is going on as matter approaches and crosses into the singularity.

One of the many theories is that as "what goes up, must come down" therefore "what goes in, must come out" - that as black holes gobble matter in from one end, "white holes" must regurgitate matter back into the universe somewhere else to preserve the law of conservation of mass-energy. It's an elegant idea (and one that links to the idea of matter being crushed up in one universe to be spilled out in another), but as pretty an idea as it is, white holes have never been observed in our universe. Likewise, theorists have also postulated that black holes may warp space-time so much that they form wormholes into the past and/or future. But again, we haven't observed any - so without any observable evidence, it simply remains yet another pretty, elegant theory.

My problem with multiverse theories is that they are, for all intents and purposes, fundamentally untestable. How can you test for the existence of a realm that may exist completely beyond the presently definable structure of reality? The mulitverse theory may very well be true, but if you can't find proof for it, what does it matter? It's like trying to answer the question "What happened before the Big Bang?" - the question itself (from a certain point of view) is fundamentally flawed, because our current understanding of the dimension of time is inextricably linked to the instant that the Big Bang occurred - there was no "before" because time, as we are capable of thinking about and understanding it, simply did not exist until the Big Bang occurred. (At this point it would probably be unhelpful to point out that "time" may not even be a fundamental dimension of the universe, given that there is no such thing as an "absolute" time!)

For me, a far more interesting question is "Why did the Big Bang happen?" Again, there are many theories - I'm not sure I buy the theory that the Big Bang was the result of matter being pulled into a black hole in another universe. The mass-energy requirements don't seem to stack up - if every black hole in our universe lead to the creation of another universe, those other universes would have to get recursively smaller and smaller to preserve the law of mass-energy conservation - a cosmic case of diminishing returns - and I'm not sure I like that idea; especially when you start factoring in potential "end of the universe" scenarios - how would the end of a "parent" universe affect the "daughter" universes? One of the more interesting theories is that each individual universe within the multiverse exists on a ten or eleven dimensional "brane" (like a membrane tissue floating in hyperspace) and that whenever these "branes" intersect in hyperspace, you get a Big Bang-like event that spawns matter and energy into the "brane". Again, very nice idea, but how do you test it? Though I suppose that my favourite multiverse theory is the deterministic universe, where each decision or event that occurs forms a branch point in space-time and there is an infinity of parallel universes where you get to play out the different consequences of every possible alternative to every decision you make throughout the course of your life. It's probably completely implausible from the perspective of conservation of mass-energy (where would all the mass-energy come from to create the infinity of parallel universes needed to satisfy the infinity of outcomes from an infinity of events?), but it does create the scope for some great science-fiction writing!

Finally, it's probably worth noting that not everyone actually accepts the Big Bang theory - and this is where the science veers dangerously towards philosophy, and perhaps, even theology. Some people don't like the idea of the Big Bang (and the single universe theory) because any event that implies a defined beginning to the universe also implies that the universe can end. Some people find that idea psychologically unsettling and much prefer the idea that the universe has always been here and will always be here. It's psychologically much more comforting to think that the universe is eternal and that there won't be an ultimate end to everything that has ever been and ever will be. Of course, I don't buy that idea either - I'm quite happy with the idea that the universe is all there is and all there will be, and that one day it might all come to an end (though what that end might be, well, that's a whole other question!), at least until someone finds some concrete evidence otherwise!

Yours cryptically...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bark: A creative educational initiative

Haiku are profound
Seventeen syllables able
To elucidate

An A-level course
With exquisite skill can be
Condensed eastern style

Thus born a grand plan
To summarise all of Physics
In a poetic form

Thinking creatively
Is a highly valued life skill
At university

Pupils find it hard
Michael Gove would not approve
My students hate writing

Monday, October 14, 2013

Bark: A faithful hound

I suppose it was inevitable.

My beloved Peugeot 406 Coupé (as seen here, under 3 inches of snow, back in 2009), which has been my faithful servant and hound for over ten years and over 141,000 miles, broke down for the third time in ten months last Tuesday. So, it was with great regret over the weekend that I decided that the Thrawnmobile (or Isabelle, as she's known to my other beloved) had to be humanely put down. Or rather, part-exchanged for something newer, more reliable and rather cheaper to run. (I was originally intending to give her a car's equivalent of a Viking burial by donating her as a training vehicle to the Fire Service, but the car dealer offered me a couple of hundred quid, so I took the offer of the part-ex instead).

So on Wednesday I'll be driving her for the final time down to Farnham, where I shall be taking possession of a rather dashing silver, 2009-plate Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec HDCi diesel. I test drove her (cars are always female, I don't know why - even in French it's 'la voiture') on Saturday, and despite having a much smaller engine than the 406's 2.2HDi, the car drives beautifully. Though at the moment, that's just a bonus, because the 406 was crippling me in terms of fuel cost, not to mention that the recurrent breakdowns were siphoning money out of my bank account uncomfortably quickly.

The Focus, on the other hand, should be at least 10mpg more efficient on my run to and from work every day, plus it's in a ridiculously low tax band (£30 a year, as opposed to £200) and because it's not as sporty as the coupé, it's a ludicrous £550 a year cheaper to insure - so I'm going to save at least £2000 in running costs over the next three years, all of which kind of makes me wonder why I didn't trade the car in sooner... Hindsight's a bitch, eh?

Anyway, I'm looking forward to getting the new car, not least because it's more practical than the coupé, which is rather important, given my latest hobby. I was lucky enough to get a small rebate on my previous mortgage (for some convoluted reason or another due to the government bailout of Northern Rock meaning we'd inadvertently been overcharged on something or other), so I decided to take the plunge and invest in a plug-in electric pottery kiln, rather presciently, while I had the money in my account before it could get gobbled up by, say, a car breakdown. These are not cheap things, so I was "pleased" that the car at least waited until after I'd bought it before cracking it's turbo pipe. The downside is that the cost of buying a new car is going to delay me being able to afford a throwing wheel for at least a few months, but having the kiln is way more important, as at least in the meantime I can hand-build stuff from clay coils or slabs. So actually having a hatchback car, rather than a saloon like the coupé, makes things way easier in terms of transporting sacks of clay and the like. I should start building and firing simple things like coil pots and slab cups over the next few weeks, as soon as I get down to Clayman in Chichester to buy the clay and glazes and the few tools I'm missing (such as clay reclaiming buckets and the like). Exciting times ahead. When I'm making stuff decent enough to brag about, I'll post pictures. (Give me a few months on that!)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Bark: Iain [M] Banks

I wasn't expecting this when I logged into my computer an hour ago. It kind of goes without saying that every sympathy should be extended to Iain Banks and his family, as at an age of just 59, this kind of news is beyond terrible, but I'm actually quite depressed about this myself.

Over the last six months I've read no less than five of Iain Banks' novels (Transition, Stonemouth, Matter, Surface Detail and The Player of Games) and only this morning started reading The Crow Road. So you could say that he was rather rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors (right up there alongside J.G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut), and his Culture novels have certainly been influential in getting me to sit down and write my own 'hard' sci-fi (40,258 words of my -first?- novel so far and counting) - in fact, I'd rank Use of Weapons as easily in my top three favourite novels, arguably even at the top of the tree. But what makes news like this hard to take is not just the loss of someone as a writer, but as a person.

His statement, which you can't read on his own website, (it has understandably crashed due to the deluge of traffic at the news) is honest, brutally honest, dignified and even has some of Banks' trademark dark humour thrown in, too - if you'll forgive the pun, it's Cultured. I guess most people try to find connections to the artists whose work they admire (be they actors, writers, directors, musicians or whatever), and I suppose I identify with Banks so strongly because a) we're both Scottish, b) have the same first name, spelled properly, c) neither of us have any truck with organised religion and d) we both want to live in a massively decadent, post-money, post-scarcity techno-anarchist utopia. But it's not just that, every interview I've read or seen with Iain Banks, he just comes across as a really nice guy; intelligent, inventive, articulate and just a little bit mischievous as well. Essentially, the kind of guy I'd like to spend time in the pub with, drinking large volumes of strong continental lager while discussing life, the universe and everything. For the people who are lucky enough to know him socially, I'm sure he'll leave a larger hole behind in their lives than for those of us who simply admire his work as a writer.

A sad day. I think I need to listen to something beautiful now.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bark: A week to forget

The last seven days have been pretty horrible, all in all. I'll be glad to see the back of them. Firstly, I broke down on the way to work with a knackered clutch, which steadily evolved into a knackered clutch, knackered engine flywheel and a leaking radiator, which will set me back to the discordant tune of nearly £1300. As if that wasn't bad enough, because the garage weren't able to get a new radiator in stock before the weekend, I've had to hire a car for an extra three days, setting me back nearly another £150, and just to top things off, my car needs taxing and MOT'ing before the end of the month, so that's another £107, because I only can afford 6 month's tax, thanks to that bombshell landing on my finances, and it might be wise to stagger the outgoings of my car tax and MOT by six month so this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

It was also my 37th birthday on Sunday, but that mostly passed me by, because I've spent about 65 of the last 72 hours asleep in bed, trying to get rid of the throat and chest infection I picked up on Friday night during my supervision of two hours's whole school detention (just the way you want to start your birthday weekend!), so I didn't even get to celebrate that, either. Nary a phone call or an email from my family, either (not that I was in any condition to answer it, but still!), so not a terribly great week. My whole month's salary has gone out of the door as swiftly as it came in, my birthday was a total write off and my lungs still feel like they're staging some kind of coup-de-etat against my other internal organs. I don't rate my chances of getting into work tomorrow.

Still, mustn't grumble, hey?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bark: OUCH

I got some bad news on the car this evening. When the mechanics stripped the engine to get to the clutch to replace it, they discovered that the flywheel that connects the clutch mechanism to the engine itself had started to fracture and disintegrate, meaning that it had to be replaced as well as the standard clutch kit. Not only that, it appears that I have a (minor, so far) radiator leak, and that might need replacing as well - which could lumber me with a repair bill in the ballpark of £1000 - just what you need in the month after Christmas, particularly when I also have to MOT and tax the car. So while it might have been a well-timed catastrophe yesterday, it has turned out to be a much more expensive one than I'd feared.

Still, I've been trying to find a silver lining. If there is one, it's this: my liver will be relieved, because with a repair bill that size, I'm not going to be able to afford to drink for the next few months... Who'd own a car, eh?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bark: Serendipity

Life is funny sometimes. I can often be heard remarking to my students that the universe is a cold, dark, uncaring and pitiless place, but occasionally, a chain of events can occur, purely by happenstance and beyond your conscious control, that solves a problem you knew you had, but didn't know how to solve. Such a chain of events occurred to me in the last 24 hours or so. I had one major problem to solve this week. How on Earth was I supposed to get my car into the garage for the MOT it needs so I can purchase a new tax disk before the end of the month, yet still get the 15 miles or so from my house to my place of work and back again - preferably without requiring horrific three hour journeys via public transport, or equally horrific 5.30am starts to get a lift with the only colleague I have who lives in my general area. I was pondering this conundrum last night when I received a text message. It wasn't anything exciting, like a message from a long lost cousin saying I'd come into a vast inheritance or anything like that. No, it was Virgin Mobile nagging me that I only had two quid's worth of airtime left on my phone. I duly doffed my wallet, and topped up my balance by £20, which as it would turn out this morning, was crucial. After I'd finished planning my lessons for the next day, I went to bed and continued to wonder, just how the heck was I going to solve my problem and avoid the DVLA threatening to crush my car for not being able to MOT and tax my car in time. I woke up this morning, full of enthusiasm for the day ahead (that is, dog-tired and stressed - the standard state of being for a secondary school teacher) and climbed into the car, ready to face the ice-caked roads for another awe-inspiring trip to work. The universe, however, had other ideas. I opted to take the main roads, rather than the less busy shortcut I usually take, simply because I didn't want to run my car into a tree by skidding off an untreated road covered in ice, which again, turned out to be a good decision, as it meant spending nearly half an hour in stop-start traffic, trying to negotiate all the roundabouts and busy intersections that I normally bypass. What this meant was that by the time I met the usual queues of traffic at the M3 turnoff roundabout between Lightwater and Chobham, the clutch in my car was begging for mercy, and promptly died before receiving any. This sounds bad. And, indeed, it is. At the time, 7.35am, in the middle of rush hour traffic on one of the busiest roads in the local area, breaking down with a broken clutch could best be described as a catastrophe, and an expensive one at that. Particularly since the world and his wife, and their pet dogs and fish had also decided to break down in the cold weather at this precise point in time, meaning that it took me 25 minutes of waiting on hold to get through to the AA for them to send a rescue party. So it was just as well that I'd topped up my airtime balance the night before, because I would have run out of credit halfway through the time on hold if I hadn't. Also, thanks to the beauty of having recently upgraded to a smartphone (the cheap but rather awesome Samsung Galaxy Ace), I was able to alert my school that I wouldn't be in and email instructions for what cover work needed to be done, which wasn't that much, because even though I have a full timetable today, only three of my six groups needed covering, as one group was off-timetable anyway, the sixth formers are more than capable of fending for themselves and I was team-teaching another session that wouldn't require cover, so it wouldn't inconvenience people at school so much. Having sorted all that out while I waited for the AA patrol, I was able to redirect my attention to the car. Now, clutch failure is pretty serious - a bit of a showstopper, in fact. Knowing that the only option was to have my car towed to a garage, I decided to give my usual garage a call in the hope that they could double-book the car in to do the MOT at the same time, which they were able to do. I also knew that thanks to my top tier AA Gold membership, I get to have a courtesy car for 72 hours, thanks to the AA and Enterprise, which neatly sorts out my transport problem when the car is in the garage being fixed and MOT'ed. As usual, it took hours for the car to get to the garage, me to get to the car hire place and then to scoot off into the icy hinterlands of Surrey to collect my hire car and return to civilisation, but all's well that ends well. I have transport while my car is in the garage, and I should get it back, fully MOT'ed before the DVLA will start sending me threatening noises about unpaid car tax bills and crushed cars. As catastrophes go, this one was definitely fortuitously-timed and while it will no doubt prove an expensive one, at least I get paid next week, and it's not going to be my car I'm going to crash if the ice all gets too much later in the week. So here's to the universe's lateral thinking and problem solving skills - every cloud does have a silver lining... And after all, 134,221 miles isn't bad for one clutch, is it?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Bark/Byte: That was the year that was...

Other than the fact I only made seven blog posts (which was pretty pathetic, frankly) 2012 was a fairly awesome year. I had a good year professionally, I moved house from a one bedroom shoebox to a lovely 3 bed semi that required practically no DIY at all, other than a lick or two of paint, I found out that I'm a reasonably talented at using a pottery throwing wheel (more on that hopefully later this year - Fleur has promised to buy me one for my birthday at the end of the month), I wrote an original film script for Script Frenzy, also wrote half of a novella and it was also a pretty decent year for books, films and videogames, too.

It was, though, epically busy, hence my seeming retirement from the internet, other than the odd Google Plus post. I'm going to try and make a bit more time for blogging this year, as I do miss writing something other than lesson plans, tests and schemes of learning. So I'm going to try to post something meaningful here at least once a week. I'm also aiming to write a page of a film script every day as well - a target that's certain to be missed, but even if I only manage a page once every three days, I should still have a workable film script by the end of the year. I'm also going to try and finish off my novella this year, too. So 2013 should be a more creative year than 2012, but probably no less busy.

Normally at this time of the year, I blog about the top 5 or top 10 videogames of the year, but this year, I think I'll widen the parameters a bit to include my favourite books and films. Note that these will be my favourites that I played/read/watched in 2012 - which means that they might not have been released or published in 2012 - it's just the year in which I experienced them, as a consumer of entertainment media, if such a thing exists - but I can't think of a more elegant term right now, so it will have to do.

Videogame of the Year:
Still Skyrim. Yes, I know it came out in November 2011, but if my Steam playing statistics are to be believed, the 415 hours I've got logged in the most picturesque province of Tamriel are testament to the fact that no other game released in the last 12 months touches it, or even comes close, in terms of spectacle, story or depth. Which is pretty damning of the videogames industry, really, but nothing released in 2012 grabbed my attention and held it for as long as Skyrim has done. I haven't even done that much with the Dawnguard or Hearthfire expansions yet, and there's the Dragonborn expansion to come in another couple of months. Part of the reason for the game's longevity in my psyche was down to the amazing amount of mods and tweaks available through the Steam Workshop, though recently I've had to tone back on the mods, because it was making the game a bit ridiculous - though I've kept a lot of the more lore-friendly mods, because they do improve on the vanilla game quite a bit - espeically in terms of the UI. I can see myself still playing Skyrim for a long time to come - it's really a game that keeps on giving.

The best of the rest:
Borderlands 2 is definitely my favourite new release of 2012. It's bright, bold, brash and bonkers. And brilliant. And it also gave me an excuse to call my students "minions", which they absolutely love.
Terraria was also a game I had a lot of fun with this year. Initially it looks kinda mindless, clinking away with your pickaxe as you dig your way through the world (literally!), but it's another game with hidden depths and masses of complexity hidden behind the retro graphics. And the fact it's playable on a netbook is just a bonus.
Diablo III and Mists of Pandaria both deserve mentions, because 2012 was a fairly big year for Blizzard, at least in terms of releases. I sank a lot of time into Diablo III, co-oping with buddy Phil, which was infinitely preferable to playing it solo, as (despite the polish) the game and story itself weren't terribly inspiring. As for WoW, it's still my MMORPG of choice, even after all these years, but bizzarely I've put less time into it this year post-release of Mists of Pandaria than I did before the expansion came out. And I actually quite like the Pandas... I guess being involved with the beta actually took the edge off the novelty of it for me. But I will, inevitably, go back to it.
XCOM - Enemy Unknown was one release I was hoping wouldn't disappoint this year, and I think, on the whole, delivered according to expectations. It's not without flaws - I think the maximum squad size of six is too small (a concession to consoleland, I fear) and the game has the bad habit of isolating your soldiers and then throwing six enemies at them, so it's got a few game balancing issues, but I did enjoy the reimagining. Damningly though, I still think I'd prefer the original if I could only play one of them, and I wouldn't put that down to nostalgia.

Surprise Package of the Year:
While it pains me to admit it, being a die-hard "Han shot first" Star Wars fan, Star Trek Online is way better than Star Wars: The Old Republic. I tried to love The Old Republic, but I can't do it. It's dull as hell in PvE and I don't have the time or patience to get into the PvP. I also don't like the aesthetics very much and I absolutely hate the fact that as a Jedi character you're able to get spanked resoundingly by common or garden street trash. That Jedi characters are zero fun to play at all is more than enough reason for me to bin my subscription. It's just not worth it.
Star Trek Online, on the other hand, is free to play, totally nails the aesthetic look of the ships and universe, and actually makes good use of MMO-style combat mechanics. The space battles are really well done (almost on a par with Star Trek: Bridge Commander - an old favourite of mine) and the ground combat is passably more fun than in The Old Republic. The group PvE events are awesome and you can grind them to get the dilithium you need to buy extra ships, without having to pay real cash for them - the only truly intrusive "pay to win" feature has to be the lock boxes, which you have to pay a quid a throw to open. I have about 30 of them stashed away in my bank, and there's no way I'm spending 30 quid to open a few boxes on the off chance I might get a new ship. FUCK, and, indeed, THAT. You can get master keys on the exchange (the STO equivalent of the auction house) for 1.2 million energy credits apiece, but that is a lot of game time. Other than that, I've been really impressed with it, and have levelled up to Commander, unlocking the Klingon campaign, which is massively more challenging than the Federation one, as the starter ships are fragile as hell - though it is nice that you jump in straight at level 20. Though, to be honest, I think I'll stick with my slinky redheaded Vulcan Science Officer. She's way cuter...

Book of the Year:
Without doubt, A Game of Thrones. All of them. Last year I ploughed through the lot in about four months. I can't wait for the next one, but I am not happy about what dear George has done to Jon Snow. There will be a reckoning, Mr Martin...

Films of the Year:
I didn't get around to seeing Skyfall yet, as I don't particularly like going to the cinema anymore - it's an age thing - they just pump up the soundtrack so loud these days that it's physically painful. I'll just grab the DVD instead and watch it in the comfort of my own home. Similarly, I didn't go out to see my other favourite films at the cinema either, and this year they have a distinct superhero flavour. The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers Assemble and X-Men: First Class were all suitably brilliant: well-scripted, well-acted and well-shot pretty much in equal measure, and I think I may now have a new favourite actor. I've seen Michael Fassbender in a couple of things now, and he's awesome. I'm doubly looking forward to finally getting around watching Prometheus (which I picked up on DVD but haven't watched yet), because he's in that too.

As for 2013, I can't say there are many things, be they books, games or films, that I'm particularly looking out for or forward to. Though that might be a good thing - if I don't keep up with the hype, I'm a lot less likely to be disappointed. Though that said, there is one thing I am waiting quite eagerly for, and that's the new Star Trek film. The trailer looks delicious.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Byte: XCOM - The Next Generation

I know you could be fooled from my activity rate on the internet in general lately, but I am not dead, just busy. After moving home in the summer, I was rather too busy to even think about games (and I was also without the internet for five weeks thanks to not having a phone line, so I wasn't exactly keeping up with the new release schedule), but in the last fortnight or so, I've been inundated with good new games to play.

One, of course, is Mists of Pandaria, which I've not put too much time into yet, but based on my time in the beta, and the dabbling I've done with it so far, is a pleasing addition to the World of Warcraft. I can see myself putting quite a few hours in with my Kung Fu Pandaren.

In the same vein, I was pleased to be able to download Torchlight 2 after I got my internet back. It's essentially Torchlight, but shinier, and with multiplayer. The player class and mechanical tweaks are very welcome (especially the ability to give your pet a shopping list for identify and recall scrolls whenever you pack them off to town). I've not had opportunity for multiplayer as yet, and probably won't for the foreseeable future, but it's exactly the kind of game I'll be able to dip in and out of when I'm too tired and brain dead to play something more cerebral. It's on a par with Diablo III, and I really loved that.

And that "something more cerebral" is Firaxis's reimagining of UFO: Enemy Unknown. In short, it's fucking terrific. It's absolutely identifiable as a UFO/XCOM game, but with a slinky new interface, revamped aliens and a whole host of 21st Century finishing touches and improvements. The move to proper 3D means that the maps have shrunk somewhat, though that's not necessarily a bad thing - you're not going to spend twenty turns hunting for an alien that's panicked and is hiding in a dark corner of the map. The squad sizes have been reduced to compensate (which I'm less keen on), starting at 4 and expandable to 6, and soldiers how have classes that get unlocked after their first promotion. Speaking of soldiers, Firaxis have avoided the seemingly trivial mistake that put me off the UFO: After* series of XCOM alikes, and indeed, improved on the original. I am, of course, talking about being able to rename soldiers (not just give them nicknames). The XCOM doesn't just let you rename your soldiers, though - you can customise their voices and appearances, too. So my soldier actually has a passing resemblance to me (complete with the Merv Hughes style moustache I'm going to grow again next month for Movember). This was always a key part of my immersion in the game for the original ("No! Not Paul! Nooooooooooooo!"), so to be able to properly customise the soldier avatars so they look like my friends and co-workers is a stroke of genius.

This isn't the only new feature: there's much more of a focus on attempting to tell a story and the presentation is much more cinematic, thanks to the improvements in technology since the original game was made. Your scientists and engineers have a face and interact with your aide de camp to move on the overall narrative. The XCOM council is now a more tangible presence in the game, who give you objectives and requests to be fulfilled and it's much easier to keep track of which countries are at risk of withdrawing from the project, thanks to the excellently named "Doom Tracker" in the Situation Room. Another change is that now you only have one main base for troops, engineers and scientists (though you do have other remote bases for interceptors). It does help streamline the game in terms of your strategic management, but I'm not far enough into the game to know whether this restricts you just having one squad to respond to incidents. I suspect it does, and I'm in two minds about it. In the original, the ability to have multiple squads to respond to UFO recoveries, terrorisms and base assaults was key to being successful. Restricting you to a single squad to respond to incidents just seems to be a way of artificially ramping up the panic level on the Doom Tracker. But it's a minor gripe, as the rest of the game has been executed brilliantly.

The turn-based combat has been tweaked, moving away from the RPG-like system of the original to one based on the rank of your soldiers (the higher the rank, the higher their health, aim rating, etc). Regardless of rank, you still only get to do up to two movement actions per turn or fire once per turn (depending upon your class and perks taken), but the changes make a lot of sense in terms of keeping the game flowing and balancing the risk and reward of deploying quickly or cautiously. It's a bit of a shame that they've done away with the auto-shot option (where you had three pot-shots at the target, for a slight aiming penalty), but at least there's a much greater transparency about the amount of weapon damage and how it relates to the health of your squad and the aliens. Speaking of which, the new Mutons and Chryssalids are terrifying, and the less said about the new Cyberdisks, the better. (Suffice to say, they're horrid.) It's definitely worth your while investing in the larger squad upgrades as soon as possible, as things can get pretty tough with only four squad members if you have ten aliens to kill in a large scout. Yes, the UFOs themselves have had a revamp, too, with a particularly evil, brand new type of alien found at the heart of the UFO.

One change that I'm not terribly fond of is the revamp of base economics. Money is very tight at the beginning of the game, and in the original, you could use your engineers to keep you afloat by being an arms dealer in laser pistols and rifles. In the new game, you're much more limited in what you can sell to the "gray market", so you've got to really watch where you're spending the pennies and balance your budget in terms of expanding your base, interceptor and satellite fleet and the weapons you're building for your squad. To make things even tougher, the research requirements actually consume the things you're researching, and the number of raw materials (such as alien alloys) to build new weapons are massively increased over the original. This is particularly punishing, because you can't manufacture alien alloys (at least at the point where I am in the game). Is it a game balancing mechanic, or just a way of making the game artificially harder? I'm not sure. Still, who said that defending Earth from an overwhelming force of technologically superior aliens should be easy?

It is terribly addictive - even if it does feel like you're having your hand held a little through the narrative of being set tasks and mission objectives by the XCOM council to direct you towards the ultimate showdown at Cydonia. The original was much more a voyage into the unknown - since you never knew what was important to research and what wasn't - here you have much more explicit guidance about what you need to do, and I think I'd prefer a bit more freedom. That said, however, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game, arguably the best turn-based strategy & tactics game since it predecessor.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Byte: Dig For Victoly!

While it might not rank in my top 10 films of all time, I do think that Jurassic Park is indisputably the perfect Saturday Matinee film, just because there's so much there in terms of details that both adults and children can enjoy. It's one of those little details that links (tangentially) to the game I want to write about. There's a scene towards the beginning of Jurassic Park that most people probably forget. It's where Gennaro, the lawyer whom is destined to become a light snack for the rampaging T-Rex, visits the dig in South America where the amber-clad mosquitoes that provide a DNA source for the park's dinosaurs are found. He has a conversation with the lead palaeontologist about who Hammond is going to get to sign off on the park, and the palaeontologist scoffs "Grant? You'll never get him out of Montana. [Why not?] Because Grant's like me... He's a digger."

I always liked that line, because if I'd ever become an palaeontologist (and believe me, I was tempted) I'd be a digger, too. Now, I never did become and palaeontologist, much to my regret, especially after having met one of the UK's most charismatic and successful dinosaur diggers, Dr Phil Manning, a few weeks ago at the Science Live exhibition at The Royal Society. He's doing some amazing work marrying palaeontology with x-ray spectroscopy (dinosaurs and particle physics, at the same time? where do I sign up??), but more on that another time, perhaps...

Thankfully, where real life fails, videogames deliver. I still get to be a digger, though in Terraria, I'm not after dinosaur bones.

My first experience with Terraria about a year ago was rather short-lived. After about five minutes failing around uselessly, I quit and didn't look at it again. It wasn't the fault of the game, I might add. I was trying to play it when tired and a wee bit squiffy, which is not a good idea with a game that has this much depth and a relatively steep learning curve. I came back to Terraria a few months ago, when I realised that it's a game that runs nicely on my aging netbook, and its diggery charms haven't really let go since. It's quite a simple game in many ways, but when you get into it, Terraria's vastly complicated for a 2D platformer. There's crafting, combat, exploring and even world-rebuilding to be done. But the key is digging. DIG FOR VICTOLY!

When you realise that you've got to spend a few minutes chatting with the Guide (the first NPC you will meet) to get some kind of idea of how to get started in the game world, things drop into place pretty quickly from there on. You scrape together a few resources to build a safe haven. Chop down some trees to make a work bench and some rudimentary weapons. Then it gets more complicated. Mine some stone to marry with the wood you've chopped down to make arrows. Kill gels to make combine with wood to make torches. Now you can make flaming arrows. Get more stone and you can create a furnace to melt down metal ores. Get enough iron and you can make an anvil - and then you can make more sophisticated weapons and armour. And once you've got armour and passably good weapons, you can make higher tier tools (mining picks, axes and hammers) to gather resources more quickly, and it all just snowballs from there.

There's a great balance between risk and reward. To get the materials you need to create more powerful gear, you've got to explore - either wider or deeper. And this means you may very well encounter enemies or environments that are profoundly hazardous for your character's currently level of development. Terraria isn't an RPG as such, though there are similarities between Terraria's open world and that of Fallout 3 - wander too far off track and the game world will be only too happy to hand you your arse on a white marble tombstone (a nice touch, it records the manner of your death). Death isn't too punishing in softcore mode as you just lose half your cash - a penalty easily remedied by leaving all your money at home in a piggy bank that you can buy from the Merchant NPC. Hardcore mode is a different proposition (you lose everything) and there's a perma-death mode as well if you're after serious bragging rights. Terraria features all sorts of different biomes, which get increasingly hostile, the further away you get from your character's starting location, in the forest biome. The jungle biome in particular is especially nasty, as is the Corruption biome. Also, the deeper you dig, the nastier things get, though the more likely you are to find useful objects, like Depth Meters, Enchanted Boomerangs, explosives and Life Crystals, so if you want to get the best gear, you've got to take a chance on (literally) getting out of your depth.

There's also a day-night cycle that allows you to gather resources relatively unmolested during the day, but unleashes zombies and undead demon eyes at night, meaning that it's best for you to take cover underground or stay in your home; unless, of course, you want to go hunting for fallen stars, which you can use to boost your mana stat, amongst other things.

Once you've grasped the basics, Terraria is immensely satisfying. There's something comforting about the clink-clink-clink of a pick axe striking rock, digging you deeper towards unknown dangers and loot. Dig deep enough and you'll be fighting demons in lava-filled caves, hunting for golden chests filled with rare gear - gear that you need to stand the slightest chance of surviving encounters with the very same demons guarding them. Liberate enough Life Crystals (that permanently add 20 life to your maximum health, up to a cap of 400), and the game will decide you're ready to start tackling boss battles. The Eye of Cthulhu can spawn randomly after you've got 200 health, or you can summon it at a demon altar, provided you've taken enough lenses from demon eyes. It's usually the first of the world bosses you can fight, and they drop materials and gear that are handy for when you want to start exploring the more hazardous areas. Since Terraria is a sandbox, there isn't really any sort of narrative - you can't "win" the game, though for most people I guess defeating the bosses and handling all of the random encounters that can be set of by blowing up Shadow Orbs in Corruption zones would count. Oh, did I not mention there are explosives? Oh yes, there are grenades, guns, bombs and dynamite. Though using explosives can be as hazardous to yourself as your enemies. Goodness knows I've blown myself up enough times when using bombs as a fast-track digging tool.

The sandbox nature of Terraria is probably the thing I like best. Once you're over the initial hump of the learning curve, the ability to reshape the world is something you can sink hours into. I've built castles out of red bricks, towers made from glass and even flattened the top of the world as far as I dare explore, just to make hoovering up fallen stars all the more easy. You can dig labyrinths, leaving behind a trail of torches or glowsticks to mark your way down through the world. I've put 35 hours into the game, and if the wiki is anything to go by, I've barely scratched the surface of all the crafting possibilities and haven't even discovered all of the biomes yet. There's just so much you can do in Terraria, it's easy to forgive the lack of narrative and the 16-bit retro graphics. In fact, that just adds to the charm, because your imagination is free to fill in the gaps, which I've always found more pleasurable than having photorealistic graphics and an invariably rubbish story forced down your throat anyway. I think I'll be digging for a long time yet. Where'd I put my gold pickaxe and explosives?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Byte: Summer is here!

It's the summer holidays! YAAAAAAY! So you might see my writing face around here a little more often over the next few weeks. Or maybe not, because I'm back on the Warcrack again.

I soloed Utgardt Pinnacle last night with my Druid, which was quite challenging, but a lot of fun (I was down to about 3k health when I nailed the final boss, Ymiron). Though that was just for fun. I'm playing mostly with my third tier alt characters at the moment - my Paladin, Mage and Priest, and in the course of the last week or so, I've put a combined nine levels or so on them. Gormlaith is now up to a Cataclysmic level 81, Kaeleigh is now up to level 75 and Aoibheann is now level 70. I've also been working a lot on their professions skills, and Gormlaith in particular has been doing pretty well, basically just selling metal bars for blacksmithing in the Auction House - where she made nearly 2000 gold this week - enough to buy her Artisan riding training, without borrowing any gold from my main, Sharéth. Aoibheann's Tailoring and Enchanting skills have been coming on pretty well too, but I have to put another five levels on her to get the next skill tier, which is pretty tiresome, as I don't like playing as a priest that much.

What's worse is that I've topped out my rogue's Inscription skill, and he can't buy the next tier until level 65... and he's currently level 51. Ouch. That's not happening anytime soon, not when I've got to work on my main's leatherworking skill first. Still, it's good to be having fun again with Warcraft, after a brief foray into Star Wars: The Old Republic (tl;dr review - No great shakes) and Diablo III (tl;dr review - Addictive but forgettable).

The other thing that caught my eye in the news recently was this piece on the BBC discussing Gabe Newell (of Valve fame) and his response to Windows 8. No surprise that he feels a bit threatened about Steam's future given the intergration of a Windows Store into the operating system, but if this prompts a migration of Steam to Linux, there will be a lot of happy geeks out there, including me. All my Steam catalogue running seemlessly, without fiddling, on my Ubuntu install? YES, PLEASE! And the sooner the better, please Gabe!

Monday, April 30, 2012

Byte: Growing pains

Over the last few weeks and months, there's been a tiny nagging doubt chewing on the loose end of my frontal lobe. As it's been munching away on brain cells that have been shrunk or killed by drinking too much beer, it's been whispering disquieting thoughts, such as this:

"Skyrim is as good as videogames are going to get. So why play them anymore?"

Now, this could be me being my usual dour, Scottish, optimistic self. *coughs* Or it could be the seed of something a little more profound.

According to Steam, I've got nearly 275 hours logged on Skyrim, which added to the couple of dozen hours or so I've put in on the Xbox 360 version, easily puts Skyrim into the top three of my "Most Played" videogames list (still a long way behind World of Warcraft, but probably getting even with Elite on the ZX Spectrum). This is what scientists like myself call "a jolly long time", so perhaps my nagging doubt is little more than a thought instigated by the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt, but I'm not so sure.

You see, I love Skyrim. If I take off my Rose-Tinted Glasses of Nostalgic Memory (+2), Skyrim's arguably the greatest videogame ever made, despite of (or perhaps because of) its many well-documented flaws. And it's not just because I want Lydia to carry my burdens or to jump Annekke's crag or hug a Hroki (yes, they're all euphemisms; do try to keep up) but Skyrim is probably the most exquisitely designed and realised and game world ever made. Here's why...

Not only is the design of everything within the game world (from the clothes and architecture, to the weapons and monsters) brilliantly designed and thematically consistent, while the graphical fidelity of the game engine and the game world is on a scale and level of detail that's unparalled in a game of this scope, there's still room for the most vital interaction between any virtual world and the player: there are still nuances and fringes around the game experience that allow the player to fill in gaps with their imagination to flesh out the game world and their experience. The player is given a beautifully realised game world to play in, but the designers have left tantalising gaps in fabric of the game for the player to weave closed with their own discoveries and narrative as they wander through the game world.

This is a design philosophy that is increasingly rare in modern videogaming. I may be generalising slightly, but for so-called 'AAA' releases the tendency these days is to create a highly polished game world and experience, at the cost of reducing videogaming to an interactive movie where all you get to do is choose which order you get to shoot stuff - in high definition slo-mo, of course... Perhaps more damningly, these (single-player) experiences are over in less than ten hours. In other words, less than a serious weekend's worth of gaming. You could argue that the modern gamer plays predominantly online, but I am not a modern gamer. I am old. I am old-skool. I am also a highly antisocial bastard. Unless I'm playing something like World of Warcraft, Unreal Tournament 2004 or Team Fortress 2, where I actively want to engage with other players, I don't want other puny humans standing between me and my fun. Furthermore, I want my interaction with the game world to be slightly more sophisticated than only having the option of going around killing things. Sure, in Skyrim, you get to kill more than a serial killer on uppers; vegetable, animal or mineral, you get to smack it to pieces with a sword, axe, pickaxe, bow or spell and dragonshout, or whatever the heck your preferred instrument of slaughter is. But the important thing is that's not the ONLY thing the game gives you the option to do. You can ignore the main quest, clear out a cave and live as a hermit if you want to. You can get married. You can become an agent of the goddess of love and help people find marital bliss. You can solve murders. You can become a murderer by joining the Dark Brotherhood as an assassin. You can invest in farms and shops and make money by being a silent partner in merchant enterprises. You can find obscure books for a curmudgeonly librarian. You can become a master Thief serving a Daedric goddess. You can do all of these things, or none of them, and many, many more things besides. They're just so much scope within the game world - much more so than "Run this way while we set off explosions around you to be dramatic and shoot some bad dudes. Rinse and repeat.", which is all the experience things like Call of Duty give you.

But what realy impresses me about a game like Skyrim is the way you can access the game's lore - that is, you can choose to or not. The game doesn't force the story down your throat. You don't even have to play the game fulfilling your character's destiny as the Dragonborn. If you want to ignore all the lore books and main story quests, you can. You aren't forced to play the game on any terms you don't want to. You could still easily stick two hundred hours or more into the game without touching the two main storyline quests, and you wouldn't feel short-changed by the experience. Skyrim is an outstanding game on just about every conceivable level - and that's even before you try to mod it. (I may write more about the game's mod support in a future post)

Videogames are amazing. The technology we have now is so good that comparing something like Skyrim to Manic Miner is ludicrous - it's not even in the same league. What we should learn from games like Skyrim is that even now, in today's vapid "if I don't get an explosion every thirty seconds, I'm not interested" culture, videogames can be complex, sophisticated, multi-layered and (most importantly) still be financially successful. So why should we be satisfied by anything that's not as good or ambitious as this? Forget mass-market, lowest common denominator crap with big marketting budgets like Call of Duty. I'd take one Skyrim over a hundred Call of Duty's any day of the week.

Bark: Screnzy

Well, my Script Frenzy this year was a resounding success. A grand total of 143 pages, written in thirteen days, over the Easter holiday at the beginning of the month. It's essentially my own take on Game of Thrones (but set in a different fantasy world), with elements of The Iliad thrown in for good measure. It's got love, lust, intrigue, violence, religion and politics, plus characters that veer between heroic and admirable to self-centred and despicable - definitely not for kids or safe for work. I've been reading Game of Thrones rapaciously since Christmas (currently on part 1 of A Dance With Dragons in the paperbook format), and the TV series isn't half bad either (though I'm going to have to wait ages until Series 2 comes out on DVD - Winter is coming... slowly!) - it's definitely a massive influence on my psyche right now, and it shows in the script. I've had a lot of fun writing the script, and either over the summer or for next year's Screnzy I'll write the follow up (I see it as a trilogy of films, but set over more of an epic time scale than something like Thrones - decades, rather than months or years), if I get feedback that it's worth doing. I've not had many people offer to read it so far, and fewer who've actually had time to finish it and give me feedback, but it would be nice to think that it'd be worth a second draft and then trying to do something with. Though to be honest, I really wouldn't mind if nothing ever came of it - I was more trying to reconnect with my joy of writing, rather than attempting to reimagine the fantasy film genre - so in that sense, it's a success, even if it were only to linger uselessly on my hard drive for the next couple of decades. I downloaded Celtx a couple of weeks ago to have a play with that, and it's much better than using Word templates to write scripts with. And it's free, which always helps. I've got another two screenplays in mind at the moment, that I'm going to have a bash at over the next few months, which I think would be suitable for TV shows; both based on ideas for short stories I've had knocking around for a couple of years now - one a contemporary drama (semi-factually based on a trip home I had from work one Friday night) and the other being a sci-fi/noir detective story. I must do more writing here, too. I blame Skyrim. I used to write on my blog, but then I took an arrow in the knee...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bark: The Sabbatical Ends

I've been reading a lot of books this year, and it's really made me very keenly aware of how much I miss the act of writing something that's not a goddamn lesson plan or scheme of learning.

So, after the best part of a two year writing hiatus, I've decided to enlist for this year's Script Frenzy - an exercise I did somewhat successfully way back in 2009. I've had a fantasy short story/novella that's been knocking about for over a year now - to which I added about 15,000 words over Christmas, but upon re-reading it, I'm finding it pretty derivative and not really that great - though I still do like most of my characters. So I'm going to re-write and re-vamp the story with new twist, rather than a traditional high-fantasy swords and sorcery thing, I'm going to give it a more 'Games of Thrones meets The Iliad' vibe, by taking out all the orcs and the elves (or derivatives thereof) and kind of really focus on the human characters, but also really develop the mythology of the setting, harking back to the way Greek gods used to dally in the affairs of mortals. And I'm going to write it as a film script, as I really enjoyed writing in that form when I adapted Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic from game to film for Script Frenzy in 2009.

It should be fun. And it's one way of taking my mind off all of the stress of buying a new house... It's going to be a busy Easter...

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Byte: The inevitable, yet belated, "Best Videogames of 2011" post

Having had a few days to really reflect on 2011 as a whole (that is, check on Wikipedia which games were actually released in 2011), I've picked out seven games that have really left a lasting impact on me from last year. Rather than ordering them by merit, instead, I've ordered them by release date.

Initially bugged to hell, though that was fine, because I didn't buy it until it had been patched into a state that was vaguely playable. Magicka (not a vampire!) is a delightful little game. It has a wonderful internal logic in the way that you combine spells together, actually has a lot of freedom and flexibility in the way you can create your own tactics for dealing with singular or groups of enemies, plus it really pushes all the parody buttons you can think of: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, and many, many more. It also has some inspired DLC and lots of replay value, as you really try and get to grips with the sheer breadth of the spellcasting system. Like many of the other games on my list, I wish I'd had more time to devote to it. Not finishing it, nor getting to try out the online co-op and combat modes is one of my great gaming regrets from last year.

Dragon Age 2
This was arguably the first of the laughably-called "Triple AAA" titles of 2011. Featuring the greatest (possibly only) Welsh game character ever, Dragon Age II was a wee bit lacklustre - obviously rushed and dumbed down compared to its predecessor; Bioware couldn't even be bothered to put a colon and a subtitle into the game's name - but it was sufficiently interesting enough for me to want to finish it. What it lacked in finesse and deep game mechanics, it compensated for with some of the best written characters in an RPG for years. While most Bioware RPGs suffer from the "Ship of Fifth Wheels" problem, Dragon Age II actually attempted to make you want to experiment with all the characters it gave you to play with by giving them interesting story arcs and real character. Isabela, Varric, Bethany and Merrill are all fantastic characters, very well played by their actors. I wasn't too keen on how they'd changed Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening - Bioware seemed to suck out all the fun from his character, going from Alistair-lite-relief to Angsty-Emo-Anders. It just grated with the rest of the atmosphere of the game and his previous character, somehow. The only party character that really fell flat was Fenris, who is so utterly forgettable, I wouldn't have even remembered to include him in the write up if I'd not seen his name on the characters page on Wikipedia... I'll gloss over Carver, since he always died in the prologue due to my character class choices, so I've not played with him through the whole game.

Dragon Age II has a lot of flaws. It's too action-focused, the RPG mechanics are too streamlined for my liking and the main story arc isn't any great shakes. Also, the ending is fairly terrible and arguably doesn't even make sense in terms of the game world, as well-established characters act completely against type to make things more dramatic. But, despite all that, it's fun to play. It's no Baldur's Gate, or even a Dragon Age: Origins (which in my opinion is by far the superior game), but it's not the soulless piece of EA shovelware some internet reactionaries would have you believe.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
Given how voiciferous I was about the merits of the first Witcher game (to the extent of basically getting ostracised by some elements of the games journalism community for criticising a certain review of The Witcher), you may be surprised to hear that I was a wee bit underwhelmed by The Witcher 2, given that it was one of the games I was expecting to r0xx0rz my s0xx0rz last year. My initial reaction to The Witcher 2 was one of horror. Not because it seemed like a bad game. Far from it... Everything about it made me want to play it: the graphics, the setting, the premise - the lack of DRM. This may sound petty, but there was one big thing that really put me off playing the game (which led to it being put aside for the perpetual charms of World of Warcraft and other games), not only is the beginning of the game beset by horrible difficulty spikes and inconsistent difficulty levels, the initial release did not come with the ability to invert the y-axis of the mouselook, instead requiring an ini file hack, until they patched it a few weeks after the release. I've got a lot of time for CD Projekt RED, since I think they've got genuine vision and insight into how PC games should be produced and released (that is, don't treat your customer like a criminal), but this is something that should have been thought of long before the game had even gone gold, let alone been released to the paying public. I will go back to The Witcher 2 at some point this year to finish it off, since it would be a shame to let a game with this much potential stay unfinished, especially as CD Projekt RED have shown the same willingness to provide long term support for their game and really try to make it as perfect as possible - just as they did with The Witcher. It's rare that a developer and publisher give this much long-term love and attention to their games once they're shepherded out of the door. This alone practically merits The Witcher 2's place on my list: PC gaming (and videogaming in general) needs more developers like CD Projekt RED.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This is another game I didn't put as much time into as I wanted, and will probably end up completing this year, instead. I have to admit, when I first heard about Desu Ex 3, I was skeptical. Actually, skeptical is an understatement. I thought it would be shite. By goodness, was I wrong. Not only did it feel like Deus Ex, it played like it, too. In any other year, this could have been game of the year. What a shame then, that it was released in the same twelve months as arguably the greatest single-player RPG ever made.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine
It's not big, it's not clever, but by the gods of Chaos, isn't it fun. Stomp, slash, shoot and mash your way through a big horde of orks, and then do the same with an even nastier horde of Chaos forces. Short, accessible, direct, to the point, and lots of fun. The one stand-out game mechanic is the way you regain health by performing execution moves. It adds a surprising amount of depth to the combat, so it's a crying shame that the end boss battle sucks out all that depth and turns it into a Quick Time Event button-mash-fest. Press X for the Emperor! The storyline was rather ponderous and predictable, too, but that's not stopping me holding out for a sequel at some point.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I've got over 144 hours currently logged on Skyrim, according to Steam. Considering that the game's only been out for 2 months and for one week of that I was away from my games rig in France and for the rest of the time I was working about 60 hours a week in my day job, I think that's pretty appalling and pretty impressive. I can't think of a game I've enjoyed this much since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Never mind game of the year, Skyrim's gone straight into my All Time Top 5 Videogames. Okay, it's buggy and glitchy and you have to hack the game to marry the Athene-like Lydia, but it's just such a well realised game world, that I find it hard to care about the giants that send NPCs into orbit with a hammer strike, dragons that fly backwards, horses that can climb sheer rock faces and other such problems. Skyrim's a truly great game. There's just so much to discover and do. It's achingly beautiful and the RPG mechanics are streamlined, but not dumbed down. My main character (who's finished the Alduin and the civil war questlines now - so has effectively "completed" the game) is Level 49 now, but still isn't utterly untouchable. Ancient dragons can still hand him his arse on a plate if you get the battle tactics wrong and multiple enemies can still pose quite a serious challenge. But the real motivation to keep playing with him is that Skyrim is a game where there are strong story threads weaved throughout the game, but there's still plenty of scope to create your own adventures and narratives. If I had time I could write up dozens of anecdotes of amazing experiences I've had in the game - ranging from the awe-inspiring to the farcical. Its a game where the world gives you freedom and where the mechanics give you real choice as to how to customise your character - and it's a match made in Sovngarde. I'm going to be playing this for a very long time to come, because when I get bored with my main character, I've got a Mage and a Thief waiting in the wings to play with.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
As one of the guild names on my server (The Arkanian Legacy) so succinctly points out, Star Wars: The Old Republic is "WoW in space". A gaming paternity test would tell you that it's the bastard love-child of WoW and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I've put a few more hours into it since I wrote about it last, and the game's starting to grow on me, though I still have grave doubts as to whether it's the long-awaited-for WoW-killer the MMO genre really needs to breathe fresh life into it. I've tried four of the character classes so far: Bounty Hunter (Level 17), Jedi Knight (Level 17), Sith Inquistor (Level 11) and Smuggler (Level 5). My Bounty Hunter and Jedi Knight both have recently acquired their ships, but it doesn't seem to do that much in terms of fundamentally changing the game, though I must caveat that in saying that I've not had chance to try out the space combat yet.

While the game is starting to grow on me, I'm still yet to be convinced that the 100% voiceacted script truly makes it more immersive and involving than your average MMO. In my mind it's almost like the game has been designed to be a single-player MMO, as weird as that sounds. The problem with voiceacted cutscene conversations is that they inevitably focus more on the player watching the unfolding story, rather than making the player drive on the story for themself. As I see it, the common-or-garden MMORPG player plays an MMORPG for one of two reasons.

One: To develop characters and explore the game world (i.e. The MMO Tourist), or
Two: To play socially within a guild for dungeoneering, raiding and PvP (i.e. The MMO Hardcore)

Neither of these two kinds of player really wants to be sitting around watching conversations between NPCs and their toon. They'd both much rather be out in the game world doing cool stuff. It's for this reason that I think that while the game will be a success, it's not going to be a game changer for the genre. That's not to say it's no good at all - I will probably sink a few hundred hours into it over the next year or so - but will it topple WoW from the top of the MMO tree? I don't think so.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Byte: Star Wars: The Old Republic - The Emperor's New Clothes?

Given that I'm on holiday and that I've had a bit of free time, I've spent the last couple of days playing Star Wars: The New Republic. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's going to use the "Emperor's New Clothes" line in the coming weeks and months about The Old Republic. I haven't quite made my mind up about the game yet, but the obvious one-liner is that it's the bastard love child of World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Given that these are two of my top five games ever made, by rights, The Old Republic should be the end of my social life and career. But somehow, I'm not convinced quite yet...

Bioware's big claim for The Old Republic is that it's supposedly a game-changer for the MMORPG genre, in that it's resolutely story-based and no expense has been spared in the production. Every single line is voice-acted and the experience is undoubtedly cinematic with interactive cutscenes and set pieces, but the question for me is, does this make it a better game? More on that later...

Here's where I am so far: in the last two days of play I've rolled a Bounty Hunter and a Jedi Knight and levelled them up to level 12 and level 11, respectively. It should be said at this point that the Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent starting area on Hutta is fairly terrible. Dull, ugly, not much variety in terms of enemies or scenery, it's a fairly depressing place to spend your first half dozen or so hours in the game. While that's more to do with the planet itself than the game engine (which is impressive for an MMO - at its best, it's really quite pretty and expansive indeed, not nearly to the level of Skyrim of course, but the game engine is a quite massive step up for those familiar with WoW) - I'd question the decision of the designers to have you start one of the more iconic character classes on such a horrible little muckball. Tython, the Jedi Knight/Jedi Consular starting planet is much prettier by comparison, so it's a bit of a shame that it takes ten levels for you to earn your lightsaber (in itself, wearily predictable) and that the prologue is beset by the main enemies you fight (the ludicrously named "Flesh Raiders", which sounds like a rejected Russ Meyer film title) lack variety and are spectacularly tedious.

I'm not convinced by the presentation, either. The cutscenes are obviously given a greater level of graphical fidelity than the main game engine, so while the story cutscenes (which take place in instanced Story areas, so you don't get munched by mobs in the meantime) are immersive and quite well done, the biggest issue I have with them is that the time you spend watching the cutscene is time you could really be spending doing something productive in the game. At least the cutscenes can be subtitled and are skippable, so if you're a very swift reader like myself, you can read the exposition, rather than listen to it being drawled over in Star Warsy mock-British accents. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for story in MMOs. One of the key things I play World of Warcraft for is the story and the world lore. But the game doesn't try and force it down your throat - you can take it at your own pace and access as much detail as you like. I suppose, in modern Star Wars style, The Old Republic is caught up a little bit in its own gravitas, by focusing on delivering an "experience" rather than just being a game to play.

It's easy to see why, because mechanically speaking, The Old Republic isn't really pushing any boundaries. Combat is an MMOtastic blend of cooldown management and quick-button mashing (just like WoW, then) and if you look too closely at the ability descriptions, you can see the class balancing at work. That is, all the powers are essentially identical in effect, they just have different animations. So while, as a Bounty Hunter, you can do pretty much everything that the Bounty Hunter in the Deceived trailer can (only in rather more crappy armour), somehow it feels a little empty. Again, this is more of a criticism of the genre in general than The Old Republic in particular, but if you're really trying to make the definitive statement in MMORPGs, you shouldn't really just be repackaging World of Warcraft in Jedi Robes.

This isn't to say that the game is bad. I don't think Bioware have truly created a bad game yet - an average one or two, perhaps (Neverwinter Nights, anybody?) - but I would be lying if I said at this point I was blown away by the game. I can see myself giving it a chance for a few months to see what kind of direction Bioware take it, and see how the game changes as you get characters up past level 20 and 30, but can I see myself playing it in five years time? Not really. Not unless it goes free-to-play, which I expect it (and WoW too, incidentally) will do in the next couple of years.

My most memorable experiences with the game so far have been with playing with small parties in Flashpoints - the story-based instanced missions - which are effectively The Old Republic's dungeons. Having smaller groups for instances (with gaps able to be filled by the surprisingly effective AI Companions), makes the dungeon content more accessible to everyone and the Social Points system actively rewards you for not playing the game solo. Obviously, it's early days yet for the game and I've not played any of the PvP content yet, but at this point, if there's one thing that's going to keep me motivated to play the game, it's going to be the flashpoints, because the world design isn't open enough to really reward exploration for the sake of sightseeing and the story so far isnt doing anything beyond what I'd expect of a Star Wars game - it's diverting rather than utterly compelling - doing enough to keep me interested without totally grabbing me by the lapels and forcing me to want to sit down and play.

So is The Old Republic a game changer for the MMORPG genre? Not from what I've seen. Not by a long shot. Is it a failure? Again, no - with the amount of polish and backing from Bioware and EA, The Old Republic will be a success, at least in the short term, though that's not to say that it's bug or glitch-free. Also, reports of the horrific server queues (2 hours plus) experienced by some players are not what you'd want to be hearing about a game in launch week. I've not experienced any queues myself - the PVE server I'm on isn't completely barren, but has a healthy population to be getting into groups easily, without having to wait to get onto the server. I'd say that it's an interesting experiment in terms of exploring how to tell stories in MMOs, but I think that the storytelling emphasis has gone too far. Players play games to be in control, not to watch cutscenes. There's a balance to be struck somewhere in telling a personalised story and allowing the player to do stuff without having to wait for hours and hours of exposition to play itself out. Star Wars is at its best not when people are sitting (or standing) around mumbling incoherently about midichlorians or the Living Force, hokey religions or ancient weapons, but when the Tibanna Gas hits the fan and the action starts and doesn't stop for half an hour.

I'll be interested to see what happens to the game over the next six months, particularly if they do something with the obligatory, godawful standard GUI (for Yoda's sake, someone show them the Bartender mod for WoW!), and how Bioware reacts to what I expect will be pretty vociferous feedback on how they should improve the game. I'll give the game a few months, but with WoW's next expansion around the corner (which I can't say I'm too fussed about, frankly) and Guild Wars 2 due next year (which I am most certainly fussed about!), The Old Republic's got its work cut out to keep its head above the murky waters of Hutta's polluted swamps... I'm calling it here and now: Free-to-play within two years, three at most.