Friday, June 13, 2014

Byte: The problem with Elite: Dangerous (at least for now)

At the beginning of the month I topped up my pre-order for Elite: Dangerous, to get myself onto the Premium Beta, utterly convinced by the great Scott Manley's videos that this was a game that I really wanted to play RIGHT NOW. And I was right. Considering that Elite: Dangerous is still a very rough beta, it's a massively impressive game, and I'll get onto why later. But Elite: Dangerous has a problem. Actually, at the moment, about 10,000 problems. And those are the other players.

Let me explain.

Currently, there are only five playable star systems out of an ultimate potential in the finished game of 400 billion, yes, FOUR HUNDRED BILLION... That's a 4, followed by 11 (count 'em!) zeros. Five star systems isn't a lot of room for 10,000 players, even if they are divided up over a few separate test servers. The problem can be surmised thus: people are jerks. Especially the people who have the mindset "There's another player! I must kill them!". Player-killers, and really utterly jerky player-killers, like Commander Phoenix, who cost me over 6000 credits last night in lost cargo and equipment (FUCK YOU, Commander Phoenix, FUCK YOU VERY MUCH) after ambushing my Sidewinder in the no-fire zone of a Coriolis station with a much better armed and equipped Eagle fighter, completely ruin any kind of massively multiplayer experience, where there is little chance of the jerks having their asses handed to them by even bigger jerks. PvP between players of similar equipment levels and ships is fine by me, as it's fair. But unrestricted, open-world ganking by players is a really jerky thing to do, especially in a game like Elite: Dangerous, where the penalties for death are actually pretty high. That little 30 second encounter last night cost me a good three to four hours of play time's progress. I now have less money than a brand new player in a fresh ship. And that sucks. The only reason I'm not resetting my save is because I've got over 30 kills logged on my commander, and I don't want to lose them.

Now, I understand the counter-argument. I bet some people reading this are undoubtedly thinking "Think that's bad? Try EVE Online, n00b". Well, 'n00b', I have. And I didn't enjoy that much, either. Look, I get it. It's a galactic, capitalist, free-market economy; it's supposed to be brutal. In the real world, might makes right, and so on. Man up, and fucking deal with it... But, that's just not the experience I want playing Elite. I have very limited gaming time, thanks to my job. And when I game, I want to have fun, and make demonstrable progress. It's one of the reasons I love Diablo III and World of Warcraft so much. They're very easy to dip in and out of for short periods of time, yet still make quantifiable progress. They're a rewarding game experience. But playing in a persistent world, where just one sociopath (teenage or otherwise) who's massively better equipped than you are, simply through ploughing more hours than you have available into the game, utterly wrecking any sense of progression you've made and setting you back by a couple of night's gaming time is simply not fun. It's actually hugely demotivating and makes me want to play the game less. Which is not what I want, because I want to LOVE Elite: Dangerous.

While the gaming universe is so small-scale restricted, I have absolutely now have no motivation to fly in anything other than a stock Sidewinder I can replace (using the EVE-like ship insurance system) for free. Because if you do speculate to accumulate (as one of my old poker-playing punters at Napoleons liked to say, with annoying frequency), either by trading or frequenting the conflict zones, there's a decent chance some wanker in a better ship than you will PK you for no reason other than shits and giggles, when you've got no real chance of evading or fighting them. Which, in my book, is akin to bullying, and I can't fucking abide bullies. And I've got better uses for my gaming time than providing entertainment for budding sociopaths who get their kicks out of ruining other people's fun. (Which is the main reason why I avoid online shooters like the plague - seriously, guys, get a more productive hobby...) AI jerks (read: pirates) are more acceptable within the game, because, well, they're programmed that way. But human jerks, who are just jerky for the sake of being jerky; or even worse, who are jerky because they get a kick out of being a dick and actively disadvantaging other players who have spent good money to play the game - they can just fuck off. Seriously. To (mis?)quote the magnificently crude Malcolm Tucker; fuck the fuck off.

Perhaps as more star systems come online as the game develops, the Universal Jerk Density will decrease to the point where this will become less of an issue, but I imagine in the immediate days following the release of the full game, there will still be issues with PvP ganking, since it appears (at least so far) that the game isn't set up to prevent it, even in so-called protected zones. I can see myself grinding the Eranin Federation Distress Call conflict zone for the next few weeks in a stock, vanilla Sidewinder with a single crappy pulse laser for the next couple of weeks until I earn the credits to jump straight into a Cobra Mark III (and be able to afford the insurance to replace it, if some fucking jerk in an Anaconda ganks it). All of which doesn't sound like nearly the amount of fun I'd have with the game if I didn't have to worry about being PK'd.

You see, Elite, Frontier and First Encounters were single-player PvE experiences. And they were all the better for it. Sure, at times they were still fundamentally unfair, say if they gave you a random encounter against 3 Harris fighters when you were flying a 1MW pulse laser equipped Osprey, for example, but at least in a single player environment you aren't permanently disadvantaged for a single, fleeting random encounter. So at least I am reassured that you will have the option to fly solo in the universe in the final version of Elite: Dangerous. Virtual, AI jerks and pirates I can accept and deal with, but I'd rather not play to provide a source of entertainment for real, actual jerks. That's not the kind of behaviour that I like to reward and encourage...

Though please don't read this post and think "Oh man, Elite: Dangerous is horrible and crap - no way I'm buying that...", because even though I'm having a bit of a moan here, that's not the whole story.

When this game is finished, and I'm going to call this here and now, Elite: Dangerous will be Game Of The Year. No question. Yes, it's barely out of Alpha; yes, the netcode is a bit shonky and laggy; and yes, the game seemingly crashes at the drop of a hat (or a pitifully weak sneeze in its general direction), but even so, the potential is there for this game to easily repeat the success of its 8-bit progenitor, if not surpass it.

As you can see from the screenshots, graphically, the game is spot on ("Right on, Commander!"), and the ship flight model pleasingly combines the original's aeronautical-style dogfighting with a simplified version of Frontier's Newtonian mechanics very well indeed. The sound design of the game is also excellent. I could go all Physics-teacher-y on you and moan about how you shouldn't hear any external sounds in space, but game design isn't just about realism; it's also about giving quality feedback to the player to get them interacting with the game on a more meaningful level - and this is something that Elite: Dangerous does beautifully well.

Also pleasing is the level of complexity in the commodities trading system, ship upgrade options and the social and political depth of the game universe. This is going to be a galaxy riven by disparate factional conflicts, as the Federation, Empire and Independents try and carve out their own little fiefdoms in the wider galaxy. Hopefully, in its final form, Elite: Dangerous will replicate the features in Frontier and First Encounters, where you can take on military missions for each of the factions, essentially choosing sides in the wider galactic conflict. In short, Elite: Dangerous has the potential to be everything that I'd want from a current-gen update of the original Elite.

You've got nice graphics, a flight model that adds a tactical depth to the ship-to-ship combat, great sound design, a neat solution to the distance problem between the hyperspace jump points and the trading stations that works in a single-player and mulitplayer environment('frameshift' drive, which is a nice homage to the original Elite's jump drive), a decent amount of complexity in the trading and ship upgrade mechanics, and space combat that matches (and even surpasses) anything you'd get from the X-Wing or Freespace series. When all the extra features promised in the Kickstarter start to feed into the game (such as planetary landings, as so on) start to really build up the possibilities of what you can do within the game, Elite: Dangerous is going to be utterly phenomenal. And if the original Elite is anything to go by, I won't need to buy another videogame for another five years. Because that's how long it will take me to exhaust all the potential content of Elite: Dangerous and its expansions.

A lot of people initially criticised David Braben and Frontier for being vague about what Elite: Dangerous was going to deliver, when they posted the Kickstarter, all the way back in the winter of 2012. Now, as the game moves towards its standard beta phase, it appears that all hype is totally justified, even if the game itself, in its multiplayer form, isn't without problems. I'm confident that Frontier will be able to iron out the problems with the netcode that occasionally result in player ships glitching into the hulls of Coriolis stations in massive explosions. And I'm also confident that they will be able to find a good balance between singleplayer and multiplayer versions of their playable galaxy. There's still a long way to go before Elite: Dangerous is a finished, polished product, but (jerky PKers aside), it's already the best space sim I've played since Frontier - and that's just with a restricted galaxy of five solar systems to play with. The mind boggles as to what the game will be like once they open up the whole Milky Way for us to play with. It may have been nearly 20 years since the last release in the Elite franchise, but, oh my, the wait really has been worth it.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Bark/Byte: Holidaying against the dying light

Well, what a week that was. Not terribly productive, in any sense. I failed to finish rewriting my second draft of my space opera novel, didn't really do any work at all (either for work or for my burgeoning pottery enterprise), and this week, humanity really showed just how backwards-looking it can be in its politics and the way it treats women as second-class citizens in just about every respect imaginable.
Even this promo image for the latest in a tedious string of multiplayer survival horror games earned my ire this week:
Nice, huh? It's practically screaming "violence against women is okay, kids!", even if that's not the intention - it's normalising the image of a faceless, partially mutilated, dead woman. Not the kind of thing I want to see when I load up Steam, thanks very much. So, developers, you're not getting any of my money, well... ever.
So, with this being my final evening before returning to the chalkface tomorrow, I've been trying to stave off my own depression against the human race by looking to the future... by looking backwards. Okay, WTF brain? Why do you do this to me?
This week, I have, in the absence of anything approaching self-discipline, ploughed far too many hours into Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, completing it with my Demon Hunter, Barbarian and Wizard, before putting some serious levels onto my Crusader. It's fairly mindless, old school gaming, though nicely polished and fiendishly addictive (if you'll forgive the pun, given that the game's all about killing demons - and fallen angels). Lately, though, I've been wanting to play something just that little bit deeper, and since everyone else seems to be propelling themselves back to the values that were normal in the mid-1980's, earlier today, I decided to go the extra few quid to buy myself into the Premium Beta for Elite: Dangerous, since the original Elite on the ZX Spectrum was the one game that got me through my teenage years.
Now, I could have waited. I was already on the second-string beta access, because I'd backed the project last year when it got Kickstarted, but I was feeling down enough this afternoon to spend the extra few quid since a) I have absolutely zero interest in buying any other game due out this year, and b) the videos the redoubtable Scott Manley (my hero, incidentally!) has been posting really sealed the deal for me: it looks FUCKING EPIC. And I'm about to find out just how epic it is, since it's just finished installing... So I would blog a little bit more about my middle-class, liberal, intellectual angst, but... SCREW YOU GUYS, I HAVE A FAULCON DELACY SIDEWINDER TO FLY!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Bark: A significant week

This week has been pretty special. I got promoted at work, from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4 Coordinator in the Science Faculty, which probably doesn't mean that much to anyone not in the profession of teaching, but it's a pretty big deal. Not only does it mean more money, but it's a position of genuinely significant responsibility, not only in terms of line management, but also making sure that people get their examination entries sorted out properly, coursework sent off on time, etc. So, fundamentally, it's a massive step up from my current role in the right direction towards the future possibility of being a future Head of Science. A year ago I probably never would have put myself in the position of even applying for the job, but this year I've really rediscovered my ambition and could really see myself going for Head of Faculty roles, or maybe even higher, in the next few years.

I also finally got around to watching Gravity on Tuesday, and promptly used scenes from the DVD in two of my lessons on Friday, to help teach my year 9's about orbits and give my year 12's more of an insight into the application of Newton's First and Third Laws of Motion. I'd had the DVD knocking around my office at home for a couple of months, but never quite gotten around to watching it before this week. It would be easy to be overly critical and point out the flaws with how some of the physics shown in the film is blatantly inaccurate, but it's important to recall that "science fiction" does require some suspension of disbelief, just on general principle. Artistically and technically, Gravity is a phenomenal film, easily one of the best I've seen in the last couple of years. The plot may be rather thin, but as a character study on loss, grief, resilience and the human will to fight and survive against insurmountable odds, Gravity is a masterpiece, and visually, it's one of the prettiest films ever made. It utterly captures the desolate beauty of space. I absolutely love the film, and the soundtrack is amazing - I can't get it out of my head, and I've been listening to it all weekend as I've been putting the finishing touches on my second draft of my sci-fi space opera novel, which I finished the first draft of over the Christmas holiday, last year.

This weekend has been a bit of an odd one, as it's been mixed, in terms of creative success and failure. My exploits on the pottery throwing wheel were a bit hit and miss, as I ruined one pot before I even got it off the wheel, wrecked another by being careless and letting it fall on its side (knocking it off centre) when I was wire-pulling it off the wheel onto a batt, though I did at least make one nice, big ovoid that I can bisque fire during half-term. The real excitement of the weekend, however, was doing my first glaze firing, using the pots and mini X-Wing test pieces (made using a silicone ice cube tray, bought for me by my good friend Alex) I'd had air-drying since Easter. Obviously, I wasn't expecting anything commercial quality, since I was just mucking around, layering different glazes over one another to see if they worked, but the results aren't bad at all, considering that I was using bog standard off-the-shelf, paint-on glazes. Once I really get into making my own dipping glazes, I will expect much better finishes on my pots, in terms of consistency and the evenness of the glaze.







I'm hoping that tomorrow I'm not going to regret opening the kiln a good hour or so too early (it was still 100 degrees inside when I took my first peek inside to see what had happened overnight between Saturday and Sunday), but one of the glazes I'd used (on the three pieces in the foreground of the first photo) was a crackle glaze, and it was amazing to hear the glaze pinging and ringing, almost musically, as the glaze shivered and contracted over the pieces once I'd taken them out of the kiln, contracting faster than the clay bodies of the pieces, forming new cracks while I watched - you can see the cracks forming in the glaze of the egg-like pot in the foreground of the last picture. The mirror black ovoid (penultimate photo) is now sitting proudly on my desk, next to my lava lamp, by my monitor, looking all shiny and gorgeous. It's incredible to look at it and think "I made that!"

Pottery is such a universal, cross-cultural endeavour: in a couple of thousand years, some future archaeologist might dig up fragments from one of my pots - though goodness knows what they might learn from it. When I first entered the ceramics tent at Art In Action, all those years ago, I never envisaged myself actually making decorative pots myself, but now, I have real, solid evidence of what I can make - and the possibilities are beautiful and endless.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bark: An odyssey in ceramics

It crept up on me slowly, at first. I've always kind of liked art, or Art, if you are pretentious enough to insist on the capital 'A'. It wasn't my best subject at school, but I've always been a bit of a jack of all trades, a little bit creative, a little bit analytical, a little bit mathematical, a little bit practical, a little bit artistic. In recent years though, particularly since I've become a science teacher, actually, and I spend the vast majority of my days being Mister Science or Professor Physics in the classroom, I've felt much more of a need to develop the creative side of my personality, if only to find some sort of balance.

A good few years ago (I forget exactly when, but it's over 5 but less than 10), my dear friend Mark Nicoll introduced me to Art In Action, and the seeds of a potentially life-engulfing obsession were sown. Even as far back as Year 7 and Year 8 Art lessons, I'd always liked ceramics and working with clay, mainly because you got to get your hands dirty, and you physically got to create something. About four years ago, at Art In Action, I got acquainted with an Australian ceramicist called John Stroomer, firstly through watching a few of his demonstrations, and later buying a few pieces of his work at the show, when he told me that every summer he runs a throwing course up at the Solway Ceramics Centre in Cumbria, at a ridiculously reasonable price, for a 5 day course. Suitably tempted to try my hand again, I went along the following year, and much like John himself (who is an epically great bloke) I pretty much instantly knew that making ceramics was something that I really, REALLY, wanted to do quite seriously.

It's taken a while, but finally, after nearly a year's delay, thanks to my old car costing my £2500 in repair bills after 3 breakdowns in 9 months, last month I acquired the last piece of equipment I needed to get my ceramics studio properly up and running, a Shimpo Whisper-T throwing wheel.


With a 25kg of stonewear clay, a throwing wheel and my electric kiln all in situ in my back garden studio, I was able to use the Easter holiday to get back into the groove of throwing a few shapes and pots. And, as it turns out, I'm pretty pleased with the stuff I've been making.









Now that I'm throwing decent enough forms, and following my first successful bisque firing (getting 'raw' leather-hard clay ready to be glazed) in the kiln that didn't result in my pieces turning from pottery into explosive shrapnel, I'm only just beginning on the odyssey of glazing, which, thanks to the rather intricate chemistry involved, is rather exciting, both from the perspective as an artist, and a science teacher. For the time being I'm starting with off the shelf, paint-on glazes, but over the course of the next few months, I'll be buying the raw glaze materials and making them for myself, as not only does it work out cheaper, but you can also experiment (like any good scientist would) to find your own particular recipes that will suit your work. Of course, experimenting with glazes requires testing pieces, and I don't want to be testing glazes using pots that use a few quids' worth of clay, as that's not terribly cost effective. So I have found another, rather cheaper way of testing glazes.

Last Christmas, my friend Alex bought me a Star Wars X-Wing ice cube tray, not realising that I don't actually have a freezer. So the ice cube tray had been sitting uselessly underneath the sink in a drawer, waiting to find some purpose and utility. During the Easter holiday, I got into a conversation with my other dear friend Paul (yes, THE Paul, of Shut Up And Sit Down fame/infamy) and hit upon the idea of using it as a clay mould. And lo! It works! So I fired a whole squadron of them.





They keep the detail from the mould surprisingly well, and I can't wait to see what they look like after a glaze firing. (Note to Disney and George Lucas: Put the pet attack lawyers away - I'm not going to be selling them... k? thx...)

Expect more dispatch journals from the pottery odyssey later in the year.



Monday, April 21, 2014

Bark: Tabletop tales

As the final evening of my Easter holiday winds down, I'm glad to have had a very relaxing and restful holiday (yes, internets, I'm still not dead, just forsaking your shiny charms for other pursuits), but one of the highlights of the holiday was hosting some friends for the Easter weekend, and finally getting to break in one of my burgeoning collection of tabletop board games with a group of close friends, in a way that might hopefully persuade my partner that playing board games other than Scrabble isn't actually grounds for excommunication from general society.

I, of course, entirely blame Wil Wheaton for this. Well, that's not quite true. I also blame my best friend Paul for this, as he also co-created and runs a tabletop gaming show, the quirky and delightful (and very British) Shut Up And Sit Down, for causing me to spent hundreds of pounds on board games over the last year or so. But mainly I blame Wheaton, for making board gaming something approaching socially acceptable. (This is "blame" in a good way, incidentally, because I don't regret spending a single penny.)

Anyway, so after dinner (tacos and my special secret recipe chilli con carne - and no, you still can't have the recipe... what part of "secret" don't you understand?), I dig under the sofa to find an easily playable game for six people, that shouldn't be too hard to pick up, even if five of us have never seen a board game more complicated that Trivial Pursuit before. I opt for Munchkin Deluxe, because it's a simple enough card game, with ample opportunity for us to be jerks to one another, a game mechanic that I feel will especially appeal to Flo and Alex's kids, Phil and Julian.

We opt mainly to learn the rules by playing, and I (admittedly unintentionally) slim down the rules, to make the game a bit easier to play ("house rules, people... house rules"), and set out to explain things as I go, taking on the Wil Wheaton role from Tabletop (i.e. the host that's destined to lose). Munchkin is a game that normally should take 60-90 minutes, even with 6 players, but because we're all pretty much learning as we go, it turns into a three hour epic. But, most importantly, we all had fun and a lot of laughs, even when I (as the Thief) started backstabbing to demonstrate the essence of being a Munchkin (I am competitive, after all). It did help that Flo, Phil, Julian and myself had a basic grounding in the tropes of D&D thanks to either having played D&D as a kid (i.e. me) or having sunk hours and hours into Baldur's Gate (all four of us), as Munchkin has a real sense of humour, grounded in D&D parody.

What was best about the game was that as the night wore on, and everybody got more used to how the game played, all six of us stayed in contention for the win, right until the final turn, where, almost out of nowhere, Phil, after having been totally hosed by the deck for the whole of the game, and being two levels behind everyone, right up until his final play, managed with his keen gamer brain to take advantage of the game mechanics to jump up three levels to level 9 through a canny use of a level up card and his halfling ability to sell his first item for double gold. His final door card was a reasonably compliant monster, and even though everyone tried to backstab or nerf him with potions and modifier cards, Phil (thanks to some generous acts of charity earlier in the game to boost his combat level with gifted cards useless some of the other players), managed to still get over the finishing line. And all before midnight.

Next time, though, we'll play a bit of The Resistance... because it has even more awesome potential.

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?