Monday, June 23, 2003
Sun. Sand. Submachine guns. Soft pastel shade suits. Spandau Ballet. Vice City has all this and more.
For those of us who grew up when Miami Vice was the zenith of cool, Vice City is an homage, pastiche and parody all rolled up into one. Vice City sets its stall out from the opening credits, with a sublimely clever mock Commodore 64 loading screen, which will have gamers of a certain age smiling wistfully in nostalgic reverie, recalling an era long past.
Vice City drips an atmosphere of ‘80s excess – the clothes, the cars, the music, the in-jokes – all of these things have a suitably dated feel which allows you to slip into the role of the protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, easily. It’s this air of immediacy and accessibility that makes Vice City such a joy to play – gone is the vague directionless meandering that plagued GTA III – you have a real character to play now, a real purpose behind your actions, and none of your freedoms from GTA III have been taken away from you.
The game feels bigger, better and more complete than its immediate predecessor, and it is. The attention to detail is magnificent – predecessors to the cars you find on the streets of Liberty City can be found in Vice City, with suitably retro styling. The city itself is huge, about three times the size of Liberty City, and is a much more realistic cityscape – with building sites, shopping malls, airports, dock facilities, a stadium and even a golf course. What’s more, all of these locations can be explored, clothes can be acquired in the shopping mall, along with health restoring food at the fast food joints. Golf carts can be stolen and driven through town. There is even a remote control car racing track on the beach, a dirtbike scramble track and a remote control aeroplane race.
You can get extra cash by delivering pizzas, providing a taxi service, and performing paramedic and vigilante missions, as well as successfully completing rampages – the one by the airport with the minigun being particularly notable. Yet somehow, all these minigames do not take anything away from the main story missions themselves, complementing them, rather than taking away the main focus from the game. You can also buy property and businesses, investing your ill-gotten gains, to provide you with garages to stash cars, and extra safehouses where you can save your game.
All this is mere window dressing, however, as the meat of the game in GTA has always been the driving and the killing. Here, Vice City delivers, in a big way. Bikes make a return to the franchise for the first time since the GTA: London expansion pack, and it’s one that’s more than welcome. You’re given a choice between a manoeuvrable scooter, a nippy dirtbike, the ultra-cool chopper, and the blindingly-fast superbike, the latter of which is absolutely lethal. The bikes are probably the most satisfying vehicles in the game to drive, due to the combination of their speed, nimbleness and total vulnerability. The cars too, have also had a revamp, from the wallowing 4x4s to the point and squirt supercars, the handling physics is superb, giving you a real sensation of power and inertia.
Weapons are suitably varied, from the humble hammer and knuckleduster, to M60’s, flamethrowers and assault rifles. You can now crouch to increase the accuracy of your aim, and present a smaller target. Tires can also be blown out on vehicles, wildly altering handling characteristics, which becomes a new tactic employed by the police, who now deploy ‘stinger’ nail traps at roadblocks.
It’s touches such as these that all add to the game’s ambience, along with a top notch voice cast, featuring Ray Liotta, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and William Fichtner, plus stylistic presentation touches including lens flare that would put Michael Mann to shame and gobbets of blood sticking to the screen after you’ve just carved someone up with a chainsaw.
Vice City’s satirical sense of humour mercilessly targets all the hot buttons of the decade, fraudulent media evangelists, political paranoia, the degeneration of youth and virtually every mafia or gangster film from 1970 onwards, meaning that you’ll find lots to laugh at during the carnage.
The conversion too, is far superior to that of GTA III, with no saggy frame rates or showstopping bugs, though there do seem to be a few minor issues with population consistency, with cars not returning properly if they duck briefly out beyond the draw distance. However, such niggles are trivial compared to the staggering achievement of Rockstar North’s vision of this game. The design and execution are superlative, hyperbole defying, even. The console kids may have had this to play on their PS2's ages ago, but the quality of the conversion and the optimisation of the graphics engine for the PC means that it has certainly been worth the wait.
I played Vice City for about 10 hours over the weekend, and despite being only about 20% through the game, I can categorically state this is the best game I've played all year. Half-Life 2 will have to go some to surpass this.
Friday, June 20, 2003
Now I have my PC back in the land of the operational, I'm getting around to reinstalling all my games. Last night it was the turn of Operation Flashpoint.
Flashpoint is still an absolutely breathtaking game, even after a couple of years. Some people complain about the graphics, but other than a bit of chunkiness, and the horrible trees, I think it still stands up pretty well, particularly when you consider just how big the levels are and the standard of the AI. I'm still absolutely in love with the weapon view, that allows you to use the iron sights of the weapons, which is really the only way you can hit targets at ranges beyond 20 or 30 metres, especially if they're moving. It's almost like being back on a full bore firing range with the ATC.
It's still gloriously hard, though I'm much more adept at surviving levels now than I was when I first bought the game, the Sniper Team and Battlegrounds single missions remaining some of my favourites. Flashpoint is possibly the only really essential PC title of the last two years, and surprisingly, the official expansions haven't been lazy cash-ins, but have added real genuine improvements to the game, as well as lots of content.
What still keeps me playing this game is the in-game atmosphere. It drips tension and oozes fear. More often than not, your first instinct is self-preservation, rather than achieving objectives. Running off heroically into battle like Audie Murphy will invariably just get you killed, so it's in your best interests to stick with the rest of your squad and try not to look important enough to shoot. Combat sometimes feel bewildering - there's so much going on trying to keep track and stay alive is occasionally an overwhelmingly difficult task. This is all part of the game's fell of authenticity - it's certainly killed any illusions I had of soldiering being a glamourous pursuit. Hours of desperate sprints for cover or crawling whilst under fire and panicked snap-shots put paid to that. I really can't say enough nice things about this game - after the difficult bedding in period where you get used to the learning curve, it hits you with superlative experience after experience. The relative lack of scripting really opens things up, too, giving you a relative amount of freedom to achieve your objectives, should something disasterous occur, like 3/4 of your squad being wiped out by a grenade or tank. I love it.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
I was working until 2.45am this morning finishing off my Professions Case for Entry Level Certification, taking a weight off my back that has been nagging me for over a year. I'm absolutely shattered, but hey, it's worth it, because getting this professions case signed off and reviewed is the first step to a pay-rise - which is as badly needed as it is overdue. I don't normally find writing a chore or difficult, but trying to sit down and write this case has been an absolute nightmare. Just looking at the document template gave me such a bad case of writer's block it's unbelievable.
I only got it done because I had my second quarter review with my manager, and I couldn't face another 1-2-1 without having it ready for review, since it's already about a year overdue. As Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes would say, the best inspiration sometimes is last minute panic, and enforcing a cast-iron deadline by telling my manager that it was ready for review on the 1-2-1 agenda sheet made me sit down and hammer out the last few niggling sections that I'd been finding so hard to write. Now I can relax, and just sit back and wait, and get my evenings back to playing games and watching films.
The launch of the new State has been remarkably smooth and trouble free, barring a minor incident where a moron decided to post crap in the News folder (and hence got posted on the public site). It didn't stay up there long - I held true to my word that anyone abusing the News system would get trampled on in the most vicious manner possible - I deleted the post, gagged and banned the user, deleted all his posts on the forum, burning his IP in the process. The charred carcass of 1234abcd will be hung at State's Gates as an example to all who would enter. Trolls will be exterminated.
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
I finally seem to have sorted out my PC problems over the weekend. Having narrowed it down to a power management problem, with either the motherboard or the power supply being the culprit, I decided to replace the cheapest component first - the power supply. I bimbled into my local PC World and picked up a new 400W PSU for about £40, took it home and installed it in about five minutes.
I had a long, hard look at my old power supply, and the first thing I noticed was that it was only a 250W PSU - which began to explain many things. With a power hungry P4 chip, a GeForce 4 Ti4600, a Soundblaster Audigy, a DVD drive and a CD-RW to energise, I suspect that the poor thing was running at peak power output for the last 15 months, and finally gave out, hence the erratic nature of the problem.
Replacing the PSU seems to have fixed it, and I've managed four days trouble free gaming and DVD watching since, which is a relief, since there's no way I could have afforded to buy a new mobo, CPU and memory. So I've reinstalled X-Wing Alliance and Freespace 2 and I'm happily annoying Fleur with the Force Feedback Joystick vibrating on the desk...
Since the advertising powers seem to have picked up on the psuedo-political content of my blog and have put pro-war Iraqi Playing Cards ads at the top of it, it seems only fair that I should post a link to the only Iraqi War Cards worth having. Discover what complete scum we have over in America running worldwide campaigns for liberty and freedom!
Friday, June 13, 2003
Thursday, June 12, 2003
I decided that the two bushes next to the path leading up to my flat were getting too manky, as they were dying from lack of light, so I took the plunge at the weekend and did some gardening. Three hours and about £100 later, I had my hands dirty and a much sexier garden.
Tuesday, June 10, 2003
The State Website is finally up. Now we just have to find some actual *content*. I've been playing more of Unreal 2 at the weekend, and got about 3/4 of the way through it, so bashed out a review to test out the site, slightly modified from my Blog entry about it a few weeks back.
My opinion of the game hasn't really improved any - it's still as vacuously pretty as before, and even with practically all the weapons now in my possession, the combat is lumberingly slow, and is mind-numbingly lightweight. There's practically no variety of enemies within levels, you have one set enemy, be it Izarians and Skaarj, or Angels or Ghost Mercs, and that's it for the whole level, more and more of the same, and in the case of the mercs, only the weapons they carry alter the challenge. It really is pretty poor stuff, and the level design lacks imagination. If I buy a game for a single player campaign, I don't want to be tied to a single location for five or ten minutes defending a scientist or landing zone, in what is essentially a badly disguised CTF or Domination level. If I want to play that kind of thing, I'll boot up UT2003 and have a botmatch, as it does it far better.
The loading times are still doing my nut in, too. I could make a three course meal, invite friends over to eat it, and then all go out for drinks and kebabs afterwards in the time some of the levels take to load. It's absolutely immersion smashing, and kills any involvement you have in the game, particularly when it's almost getting to the point of spending more time looking at a loading screen than playing the game. If I ever see the words "LOADING" "INITIALIZING" and "STAND BY" again, I'll scream.
Unreal 2 isn't *bad*, but it's not great either, warranting only a solid "meh". No amount of shiny graphics or Aida's finely sculpted body can make up for substandard level design or play mechanics. I'll probably get around to finishing it at some point, if only because I've spent so much bloody time looking at loading screens I want to see the final payoff, which apparently is the single most innovative thing about the game.
Friday, June 06, 2003
The WMD Debate won't go away - with reports that the infamous '45 minutes' dossier was sent back to the Joint Intelligence Committee *six times* until Downing Street considered it sexy enough to further the case for war in Iraq. Hans Blix has also given a parting shot to the Coalition Of The Willing, saying that the quality of the intelligence the war was based on was flawed, and all the intelligence information they gave the UN Weapons Inspectors didn't turn up a single shred of evidence. And now they're saying Chemical Ali, one of the most feared men in Iraq, might still be alive.
The words "piss up" and "brewery" spring to mind.
Still, you can always rely on John Prescott to provide a little light relief. First it was Two Jags. Then it was Two Jabs. Now it's Two Fingers.
And we let these morons run our country. My plans for a coup are going to have to be moved forward.
Thursday, June 05, 2003
Despite being a busy little bee, frantically testing software so we can put out the latest version of our application next week, I've also been trying to save State from Internet oblivion. Since we moved from Delphi, many moons ago, State has been living on borrowed time, or more specifically, a borrowed server, graciously lent to us by a friend of resident Cate Blanchett lookalike, Pat. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks ago we found out that he wanted his bandwidth back, and we had until the end of this month to find State a new home.
Fortunately, plans had been afoot to change to a new flavour of forum software, Beehive, and investigations were being made as to how much it would cost to acquire a server that wouldn't impose on some's goodwill. One of the other State mods, Phil discovered a stonking hosting deal that gave us a massive 40GB of bandwidth (far more than we currently need), two SQL databases and 2GB of webspace, for the measley sum of £17 a month. With *no* setup fees.
So this week, I did the decent thing, and went into the Internet Real Estate business. You'd think such a deal is too good to be true - well, kind of - since I've had to fork out for 6 months hosting in advance, which with VAT and a few other extras works out to around £130, which isn't too bad, considering it's going to keep me and about 100 other forumites happy for another 6 months with State not going to the Old Internet Forum's Home. Phil has also been a sweetie by chucking me a cheque for £50 to ease my slight financial pain (christ, I've still got to find £1500 somehow for my summer holiday, and still keep up the car repayments and the council tax. And the Student Loan repayments. Fuck. Where does all the money go?). I'm sure I'll also extract some compensation in the form of beer from the other less financially well off Mods when I next see them.
It's worth it though, as I get a warm fuzzy for not allowing State to die, and since it's my name on the bandwidth bills, my megalomaniac dreams have come to fruition, since if only from a legal standpoint, State's now my forum - not that it is in *spirit*, of course - which is what most of the forumites would think is important - I'm still Mad Iain, and State is the sole intellectual property of Oskar. I wouldn't argue that, to be honest, and whilst the rest of the forum would probably never acknowledge my "ownership" of State as an entity, it's still nice to be in control of the actual nitty-gritty that keeps State on the web.
It's a second home for me, of sorts, an intellectual refuge away from the tedium of work, and it's important to me to make sure it survives. It's a community. A family, almost. Certainly worth a little (and it is only a little) immediate financial hardship to keep it online.
So State is entering another era once again - in a few weeks, when the other server has it's plug pulled - we're hoping to roll out the new forum and the new website simultaneously, and then things should really start to pay off. Exciting times ahead.
Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Robin Cook's replacement as Leader Of The House, John Reid has blamed "rogue elements" within the Intelligence community for the recent media reports that Downing Street "sexed up" the Iraqi WMD reports to justify the war, in the single most eyebrow raising statement I've ever read. The Plot has been lost. Reid's claims are clearly preposterous, and little more than a diversion and a smokescreen, and worse, if they aren't - it implies major distrust and intrigue between the government and the civil service - it implies the government has lost the civil service's confidence and is no longer in control. Either possibility has grave implications.
Tony Blair, desperately wants this to go away, and is refusing to allow a public inquiry into the whole affair, preferring to keep it behind the closed doors of Parliament. Ironically, much of the media, who rabidly backed Blair's call to arms, are now turning around in the realisation that they may have been had. And there's nothing more dangerous than a journo who thinks they've been suckered and taken for a ride. This is going to run and run, and much as though I'm loathed to agree with Iain Duncan Smith with anything, he's right in saying that the government's and Blair's credibility is now on the line.
Blair's refusal of a public inquiry is damaging - it looks like he's got something to hide, despite his "100% confidence" that WMD will be found in Iraq. Tony, if I didn't believe you about Iraq in January, I *certainly* don't believe you now.