Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Seventeen syllables able
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
Is a highly valued life skill
Pupils find it hard
Michael Gove would not approve
My students hate writing
Monday, October 14, 2013
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
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
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
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
Sunday, January 06, 2013
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
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
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
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
"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.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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
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
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.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Obviously, a game this big is not going to be as flawlessly polished as a single-player game with an eight hour, linear campaign. Some people are quoting Skyrim as having at least 300 hours of unique gameplay for a single campaign, and I can well believe it. I've got over 120 hours logged on Steam playing it, and I've just finished the main storyline quest threads (the defeat of Alduin and the Liberation of Skyrim), and while I've completed about 50 side-quest chains, I've not finished any of the main faction quests (Companions, Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild, etc), and despite having finished the main storyline quests (and just in time, given that Star Wars: The Old Republic goes live in a couple of days), I'm still motivated to keep playing. In the 120-odd hours of game time so far I've experienced some spectacular bugs - from random crashes to desktop, dragons that don't know which direction they should be flying in, purple placeholders instead of real textures, giants launching mobs into orbit with a swing of their warhammer, and many, many more.
The key to the success of any game isn't whether it's buggy or not, but whether the bugs deter you from playing or not. As with an old favourite of mine, Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Skyrim's bugs and glitches don't kill my desire to play the game. They're annoying, for sure, but I'm always straight back, clicking at the shortcut on the desktop to launch the game again, always wanting more frosty, Nordic fun, punching dragons in the face.
The thing I really love about the Elder Scrolls RPG system is that the character classing doesn't really limit your options to a single character class. So my PC character (with whom I've stuck in the vast majority of playing hours - though I've dabbled with the 360 version as well, which is likewise awesome) is almost a Baldur's Gate style multi-class Fighter-Mage-Thief, given that he's specialising in Heavy Armour, Archery, One-handed weapons and Destruction Magic. He's also a world-class Enchanter and Blacksmith, and a decent lockpicker and sneak. Now that my character is knocking about in the mid-to-late level 40s, I'm mildly surprised (after the utterly broken level-scaling in Oblivion) that I'm still able to compete fairly with scaled enemies in the game world. One thing I like to do is imagine the conversation my character has with dragons as they battle; my character fully clad in Dragonbone armour.
"Hoy, Dov! I'm wearing your Mum! And now I'm going to punch you to death!"
I was pretty fond(ish) of Oblivion (despite its many, many flaws), but the changes to the levelling and the addition of a Fallout-style perks system has really improved the character-customisation aspects of the game. Skyrim doesn't restrict your choices of what skills you can level up - whatever you use the most, you end up specialising in - so you can become a genuine Jack-of-all-trades if you so choose. It's one way of giving the player genuine freedom in terms of play style, and not only that, it works: a heavy armour-wearing ninja-assassin-sneak-thief is a viable possibility, if you're willing to put in the time earning the necessary skills.
One thing that's surprised me, looking at the Steam Achievement stats, is that less than 20% of the player base have had their characters get married. Now, I don't necessarily believe that responsible adults should get married as a matter of course, but in game terms, it's a no-brainer of a decision, given that your spouse opens a shop earning you a tidy profit of 100 septims a day. And also, why would you NOT want to marry Lydia? (Note to trolls: DON'T answer that in the comments... I have a Daedric Sword with 32 bonus points of fire damage...)
It's difficult to know where to start when trying to talk about Skyrim and just how good it is. It's graphically one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played, with stunning scenery, handsome NPCs (Hello, Hroki! Hello, Fastred!) and it's just as pretty at night as it is during the day, if not more so. The aurorae you get to see at night while wandering in the high north are spectacularly good. There are also some lovely set pieces, such as the taking of cities or forts during the Skyrim civil war, as well as some challenging random encounters (it's always fun when a cave bear turns up in the of a dragon battle!), but what I like the most is that there's genuine variety in the quests. Your interaction with the game world isn't limited to killing other people. On the contrary, you can help people find true love or help solve murder cases, deliver messages or carry out errands... the game world is just so rich and diverse and all the better for it. The open worldliness of Oblivion always felt a little directionless, to me. In Skyrim there's always something interesting lurking around a corner. There's just so much out there to be found and played with; and yet, even though I've completed the main "save the world" and "save the Nords" quest threads, I still don't feel like I've seen everything the game has to offer. The flexibility in the character customisation is enticing in the sheer amount of play styles the game can offer you. I've discovered 17 different Shouts, (including - SPOILER WARNING! - the one that calls in your own personal close air support dragon to sort out anyone who's giving you too much trouble) though I haven't really played about with most of them in combat yet. When you can Shout people off the top of towers and watch them ragdoll pathetically down the side of a mountain to their deaths, it's not really motivating you to try out all the others...
I think the game I've put most hours into (barring World of Warcraft) over the last couple of years is Dragon Age: Origins (171 hours, according to my Steam stats). I can easily imagine that being doubled in Skyrim before I start being bored with it. Skyrim is such a compelling game world that I'm even dreaming about it - a sure sign of dangerous levels of obsession. There's just so much more I still want to do, even with my 100+ hours main character. It's not even about getting the "achievements" - that kind of thing doesn't make me want to play. No, I like setting my own targets, such as topping out skill stats in all of my main "class" skills - so in the case of Cathal, my fighter-mage-thief, I want 100 in Archery, Destruction Magic, One-Handed Weapons, Heavy Armour, Enchanting, Smithing, Sneak and Lockpicking. As leader of the Thieves Guild, one "achievement" I do actually quite want is to restore the Thieves Guild to its former prosperity. (Incidentally, if you are playing a Thief/Assassin type character, make sure you do the Nightingales questline as soon as possible - the armour you get for it is awesome - not just in terms of stats; aesthetically it's fabulous.) It seems only fair that under my leadership, though by "leadership" I actually mean "doing all the jobs that Vex and Delvin can't be arsed to do themselves"... after all, I sold my soul to Nocturnal in order to oust Mercer Frey, so I might as well get the Thieves Guild up and running. And then once my Sneak skills are up to scratch, I can make a start on the Dark Brotherhood jobs.
I also want to own fully upgraded houses in all the Skyrim holds that I can (I already have houses in Whiterun, Riften and Windhelm) and give legendary dragonbone armour to all my housecarls. There are just so many things I still have to do. So I guess I better stop writing and just do it...