Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Take this singularly inept piece of opinion presented as journalism. You've got to wonder whether he played the games in question at all, or whether he's just frequented a few videogames forums and made a compendium of the most cretinous comments to form the basis of the article.
No innovation in Half-Life 2? Is this man on crack candles?
Prior to HL2, physics in games was just there as a gimmick (see Trespasser, or the playful rag-doll physics of Unreal Tournament 2004), and even Deus Ex: Invisible War didn't do much with it, other than allow you to knock things off desks and stack crates. HL2, on the other hand, fully integrates the physics engine into the game mechanics, with the gravity gun allowing you to use objects within the game environment as shields or weapons, with a degree of subtlety strides ahead of anything seen before. The facial animation and lip-synching is also nothing less than astounding - allowing the characters to express themselves realitically and allow the player to form genuine emotional attachments. Sure, HL2 is still a linear, scripted game, but it wouldn't be half as much fun if it wasn't - just how much innovation does this guy want? Far Cry demonstrated the limitations of a freeform shooter - it just doesn't generate the thrill power of a linear FPS, regardless of how adaptive the AI is or how pretty the graphics engine is, and pretty much fell apart as soon as it moved indoors.
He seems to imply that the only way to innovate is to use new control methods - this is patently bullshit. Freelancer isn't a better space sim than Freespace 2, just because you don't have to use a joystick. Freelancer, in fact, can't hold a candle to Freespace 2 at all - innovation isn't about whether you use a touch-screen or a mouse instead of a joystick - it's about game design, pure and simple. Even pure arcade games can innovate. 1942 is an Old School vertical scrolling shoot-'em-up, and so is Psyvaria 2 - yet Psyvaria 2 adds something unique to the genre - you don't have to shoot. Instead, by using "buzz" (flying sufficiently close to incoming bullets to syphon away energy to recharge your shields), you can defeat your enemies simply by avoiding their fire for long enough. It's also a very aesthetic shooter (much like Rez) in that a large proportion of your enjoyment is derived from the sights and the sounds of play than your victories. Innovation is not just finding new ways to interact with games, but finding different ways to derive enjoyment from that interaction. This is typically (but not universally) achieved through making games as simple to play as possible - and this goal has been achieved by practically all the games I list below.
Even concentrating on the PC alone, 2004 has been an absolute vintage year for videogames - Far Cry, UT2004, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Rome: Total War, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War, Evil Genius, The Sims 2, Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Half-Life 2 - the list goes on and on - exceptional titles all. Innovation is not the be-all and end-all of videogaming - the refinement, purification and perfection of ideas is similarly important, if not more so - there is no better demonstration of this than Half-Life 2.
But I shouldn't get so worked up by what some idiot says on the internet... after all, opinions are like assholes. Everyone's got one - except some aren't quite so full of shit than others - and this chap's definitely anal retentive...
Friday, December 17, 2004
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Tuesday, December 14, 2004
The level of ignorance displayed in this whole debacle appalls me. Just because something's labelled or called a "game" doesn't mean that it's for kids. Naked Twister is a game, but you wouldn't let you kids play that, so why let your 10 year old angel play a game that's CLEARLY LABELLED as 18-rated? It's not like parents should be unfamiliar with a BBFC rating symbol, which appears on most 18-rated games, and the PEGI voluntary ratings are equally clear - people just want to use the non-standardisation of age rating advice on games as an excuse for their inability to take responsibility over what they allow their kids to play.
The "videogames are for kids" argument is as fatuous as it is tedious, and one indicative of an ignoramus who has probably never played a videogame in their lives. The call for violent videogames to be banned is likewise misguided - like the "video nasties" of the '80s, videogames are simply the social scapegoat for a country slipping beyond the control of the government. It's the same old tired argument (parodied wonderfully in GTA: Vice City with the "Degeneratron" adverts) that somehow violent games, films or TV can somehow incite violence. To this, I say "BOLLOCKS."
Videogames are not media that portray reality. Like films, they mirror the real violence in society, but as an exploration of why that violence appears in society, not to inspire people to recreate it. Videogames are fantasy - and anyone failing to understand that belongs in the Funny Farm, quite frankly. Many films, books and videogames have explored the cathartic property of violence, and where the representation of this violence is uncomfortably realistic (and that's the correct response to have, discomfort, if you want to truly understand the violent mind) access to these works has been rightly restricted to those capable of distinguishing fully between fantasy and real life - i.e. adults over 18 years old.
Trying to ban films, books or videogames doesn't address the real issues behind the tragedies they get blamed for - videogames no more corrupt today's youth than watching Neighbours or Sesame Street. Even the videogames angle in the infamous "Manhunt murder" in Leicester is simply a smokescreen over the real problem. The game was actually owned by the victim, and not the murderer (and who exactly bought that 18-rated game for a 14 year old boy?), plus the victim was a drug addict, killed over a drug debt. I'd love to know just how much the parents knew about that - having a drug using son is hardly a ringing endorsement of their parenting skills, is it? Whilst it's natural to want to blame someone after such an undoubted tragedy, people need to look harder at themselves, and take some responsibility for their own failings, not blame something just because they don't understand it.
Another infamous case in the US cited Vice City as the cause of two teenage children shooting at cars, resulting in several serious injuries. Surely the issue isn't two teenage kids having access to violent videogames. It's two teenage kids having free, unsupervised access to their parents' firearms. But God Forbid anyone in America try to ban guns. Guns don't kill people, videogames do.
Another wonderfully inaccurate statement I heard during the current furore was "videogames teach kids how to use guns". Now, I've used real weapons, and there's absolutely no correlation between aiming a real pistol or rifle and using one in a videogame. Operation Flashpoint is the game that gets the closest to reality, but even that doesn't come close to recreating the nuances of firing a real gun. I'd gladly challenge any 15 year old Medal Of Honor junkie to a target shooting competition with a G36 over 300 yards.
Unfortunately, with the mainstream press loving a scandal and the chance to instill fear into the hearts of the proles, the chances of getting any balanced coverage is pretty minimal, letting the government and parents gloss over their own failings and pass the buck of responsibility, whilst doing very little to actually make changes that might help. And people wonder why society is falling apart...
Friday, December 10, 2004
First person RPGs have a terrible reputation for sloppy combat, for both melee and ranged weapons. Vampire gets around the melee problem by switching to third-person when you have a melee weapon (i.e. tire iron, knife, arm severed by madman prostheticist...) equipped, but the gun combat isn't anything to write home about. All the people who complained about the stat-based weapon accuracy in Deus Ex will complain about Vampire too; it's exactly the same. Until you put plenty of experience points into the Firearms skill and other feats that improve it, you'd be lucky to hit a wall with the shotgun from three feet. It's lucky then that the melee system is much more user-friendly, and more powerful to boot. Get yourself a combat knife and use your Blood Buff power, and if you've got a decent Strength score you can swipe through most low-level enemies in a couple of blows.
If you'll excuse the pun, the lifeblood of an RPG is the story and the writing, and here (thankfully) Vampire delivers in spades. The script is brilliant, especially if you choose to play a Malkavian. Malkavians make Will Self look like John Major. Their language is somewhat flamboyant to say the least, and packed with madness and metaphores. Talking to people who don't realise your nature (Kine, that is, mortal humans) can be somewhat amusing - "That was an interesting thing to say!" - and ending conversations with lines like "You cannot speak, for I am not here." is just wonderfully eccentric. Even though you can't see your character's wild eyes and twitching face (brilliantly, if you look in mirrors, you have no reflection), you can really tell the other characters can, thanks to the wonderful facial animations of the Source engine.
There are also some excellent and supremely atmospheric set-pieces. Early in the game in Santa Monica, you're asked to retrieve a personal item from a burnt out hotel, which just happens to be haunted. The scene draws influences from Ring, The Shining and Poltergeist, and it's absolutely brilliant. If you found Ravenholm unsettling on Half-Life 2 (as I did) the Ocean House will positively give you the willies. It's the best moment of the game in the first couple of hours - be prepared for it.
If there's one disappointing thing, it's that it doesn't appear to have been particularly rigourously playtested - it's one thing having the odd bug here and there, but having sound and animation bugs in the opening movie is a bit of a poor showing. The clipping (particularly with doors) isn't all it could be either. All these can be easily worked around or ignored, so it doesn't detract from the game that much, but I'm told that the bugs get worse as the game goes on. One apparently even requires you to get around it with the development console, which is QA criminality. Still, this is what we have patches for, I suppose.
If you're into your RPGs, it's certainly worth a good look - it's by far one of the most interesting titles to be released this year. Just don't expect it to be anything like Half-Life 2 because it uses the Source engine, though - as games go, these two are practically polar opposites.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
I was staying with my parents, sitting down, having a drink, having a chat. Dad's an Old School Scot - traditional, a bit old fashioned (despite a fascination with new technology) and sometimes he says things that drives my Mum up the wall. They're both very short-tempered, and my Mum is quite emotionally brittle - very easily upset.
We're talking about the changes in society and about how women are now much freer to do what they want to do, rather than just stay at home and be a dutiful housewife. Well, Dad goes off on one (as he often does when having a drink) and starts arguing with Mum. The comments inevitably get personal and Mum asks what Dad thinks she's there for in their relationship. Dad unwisely, and semi-jokingly, says "To do the cooking" - and that's it. Mum just flips and storms out.
I say to Dad that it would probably be a good idea at this point to go and apologise for upsetting Mum. As he gets up and goes to the door, it opens, and Mum steps back into the room. Dad starts to apologise, but doesn't get more than a couple of words out of his mouth, because Mum just starts hitting him. Now, Dad's a big guy - not particularly tall (around 5'8") but he's big, strong and stocky. Not the kind of guy you'd want to meet in a dark alley in Glasgow, if you see what I mean. Mum's a couple of inches shorter than him, and not exactly well built, but her first blow just pummels him with absolutely manic strength, knocking him to his knees.
I leap up to try to stop her, but she just keeps hitting him - hitting him so hard his neck snaps and gets twisted around backwards like a Barn Owl looking over its shoulder. Dad's got his arms up in supplication, trying to fend off the blows but they keep coming, his face wrenched into a shocked rictus grin, utterly powerless. I'm there yelling for her to stop, as I try and get Dad's head facing back forwards again, but she just pushes me away and keeps hitting him, screaming with blind rage.
And then I wake up. Fucking mental.
Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Valve have taken arenas such as the shower room in Nova Prospekt and the sniper warehouse in City 17 from the singleplayer game and turned them into Deathmatch maps. They work quite well, and though I was curious about how well the gravity gun would work as a deathmatch weapon, it's just as good as in the singleplayer game, if a tad unwieldy to use at close quarters in the heat of battle.
The players I've encountered so far appear to be firmly divided into two camps - the Mustwinatallcostsandcampthebestweapons people and the Mustonlyusethegravitygunbecauseusinganythingelseischeating people. I veered somewhere between the two, erring on the side of the former, hence scoring pretty consistently in the top 4 of a 16 player server, which was quite gratifying. Whilst bushwhacking people with a single shot from the .357 Magnum halfway across the map was quite cool for a while, there's something to be said for crushing people against walls with explosive barrels, radiators or filing cabinets. In the Nova Prospekt map, you can even kill people with toilets. TOILETS. Imagine the indignity of being slain by projectile porcelain. Not something I'd want to be on the wrong end of.
The netcode appears solid, almost as good as UT2004, and that's a high compliment indeed. Things only slow down when you've got a lot of people around you using the gravity gun, and the server has to crunch a lot of physics, but with the pretty even split between the grav gunners and the projectile personnel, that doesn't happen too often. Otherwise, I'm enjoying a nice smooth framerate even at maximum resolutions and detail with medium settings for FSAA and filtering, so it looks as good as it plays. With such a fast pace, and such a clean engine, it's reminiscent of Quake III in a lot of ways, though the weapon balancing isn't quite as good, because they're all stolen from the single player game.
For the gravity gun shenanigans alone, I can see myself playing this quite a lot more in the weeks and months to come. Hopefully some enterprising modders with come up with some gravity gun only maps, where your kill rate will be more dependent upon your speed of thought, and not the speed of your trigger finger. It'd be nice to see some maps where you can lay traps and really use the environment to your advantage, and have a more thoughtful and considered deathmatch game, rather than a simply pell-mell free-for-all. Not to say that the latter isn't fun, but it does wear thin pretty quickly...
Monday, December 06, 2004
It's amazing how simple a thing can change your quality of life. When my girlfriend and I moved in together, the duvet for our futon bed was only a single duvet, because she'd been living on her own, and had only bought a single to save some money. So for the last three years, we've been constantly fighting for the covers, since the duvet wasn't quite big enough to cover us both comfortably. Well, at the weekend, we were shopping with friends, and our friends had to buy a new duvet for their youngest son, and I was reliably informed that the duvets in Woolworth were rather cheap. Having wanted a resolution to my nightly Duvet Wars for some time now, I decided to see just how cheap they were.
£15. FIFTEEN POUNDS. And this was for TWO duvets. A 4.5 tog summer duvet and a 9 tog spring duvet (which when put together in the same duvet cover, form a 13.5 tog winter duvet). All your double duvet needs, resolved for just fifteen Pounds Sterling. Of course, the actual duvet cover cost £30, but that's by the bye. £45 is a small price to pay for a good night's sleep, particularly one that doesn't involve trying to wrestle a scrap of cloth in the middle of the night away from a woman who's managed to wrap herself up like a sausage roll in the bedding.
It's all well and good having the best DVDs and computer games money can buy, but nothing's quite as nice as having snuggles, wrapped up in a nice warm bed. Technology may come and go, but there'll always be a warm bed to look forward to.
Enjoy the little things.
Friday, December 03, 2004
The phrase "Vapourware" derives from the industry terms "freeware" and "shareware", only that rather than being free or on a short-term trial licence, Vapourware refers to pieces of software (or hardware) that are never likely to ever turn up. In the recent annals of videogames development, there has been one outstanding piece of Vapourware - Duke Nukem Forever.
After six years of development, and as many 3D engine changes (so it's said by those in the know) DNF is still steadfastly refusing to budge from its "Done when it's done" status. There haven't even been any new screenshots for about two years - it's only the rumour mill touting 3D Realms' acquisition of a Meqon Physics engine licence that's keeping the whole sorry story going. It's a become a bit of an industry joke - Hell will freeze over before DNF hits the shelves, because DNF stands for Did Not Finish in motor-racing parlance - rather apt, if now rather cliché.
DNF, however, now has a rival for the 2004 Vapourware awards. The Infinium Phantom. When word first came out about this a year or two back, I was sceptical - the infrastructure just isn't there for an on-demand gaming console running PC games. When HardOCP ran an exposé pointing out the flaws in Infinium's business plan and the somewhat shady past of its management team, Infinium declined to show them around their production facilities or invite them to an interview to set the record straight - they threatened to sue them instead. HardOCP then preemptively sued, and Infinium finally decided that they did want to take legal action after all, and countersued. All this costing them huge amounts of money in legal fees, whilst Infinium admitted last week that it needed at least another $12 million in investment to even be able to launch the console at all, and only has about $20,000 left in the bank.
The problem with the Phantom is that it's essentially a PC in a flashy case you can stick under your TV. If you want to play PC games, you're already going to have a PC. So why would you want a console? Especially one without optical drives, and where you have to wait for the games to download before you can play them? With average PC game installs taking up 3GB or more of disk space, who's going to want to wait around downloading that much data to a console? What's the point in renting a game for an evening if it takes 6 hours to download?
So it can't really be much of a surprise that one of the investment banks helping fund the console's development has lost patience and decided to sue, possibly putting the final nails in the Phantom's coffin. Even so, it'll probably still come out before Duke Nukem Forever does...
The screensaver, somewhat less than imaginatively called Make Love Not Spam, is designed to bombard spam websites with data traffic until they either fall over in a big heap with the strain, or end up costing the spammers so much in bandwidth bills that they can't afford to run them anymore. "Stick it to The Man!" or "Fight the Power!" you may cry, but I don't particularly think this is either a good idea, or entirely ethical. Despite what Lycos claims, this is essentially a Denial Of Service Attack, which is the lowest form of internet sabotage, committed by the lowest form of internet scum. (He says, immediately setting himself up for a Denial Of Service Attack...)
You might think that spamming the spammers is beating them at their own game, but it's nothing of the sort - you're just giving the spammers confirmation of details about your computer, like your IP - which they can then use to try more insidious things, like infiltrating trojans or worms onto your PC and creating backdoors with which they essentially take over your computer. The best way to deal with spammers is to let them spend all their money sending off emails, and let them disappear into a black hole by not even acknowledging their existence. If you don't respond to spammers, there's nothing they can do - they just end up wasting their money and going out of business.
There's a maxim on internet forums - "Don't feed the trolls!" - you can say the same about spammers too. If you ignore them, they don't make any money, and you stop getting spam. Simple. Shame that most people are too stupid and/or gullible to figure this out for themselves.
Lycos are walking a legal tightrope here - whilst Denial Of Service Attacks aren't technically illegal in most places, they're universally frowned upon by pretty much everyone - and some countries are in the process of changing their legislation to make it so - potentially leaving them wide open to litigation. It seems like a particularly misguided attempt to deal with spam to me. Why go to all the effort of creating screensaver, when simply ignoring spammers is so much cheaper and more effective. All this screensaver will do is antagonize a group of people who aren't exactly known for their sensitivity in their treatment of other internet users anyway... Not only that, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if this screensaver turned out to be a subtle piece of spyware, designed to monitor your internet usage, so that Lycos can target market you with their own special brand of palatable spam.
If there's anything I've learnt about the internet over the last 10 years, it's that it pays to be paranoid. Everyone really *is* out to get you. But then doesn't that make it cease to be paranoia, and become good, old fashioned caution? Draw your own conclusions...
Thursday, December 02, 2004
As you should all know by now, the internet is a crazy place. Yet sometimes, just sometimes, you'll stumble across an idea so wonderfully insane and pure in its genius, it restores your faith in the internet, despite all the worms, trojans, Viagra spam and phishing scams.
The Infinite Cat Project is one such project. Take a photo of a cat. Then take a photo of a cat, looking at the first photo of the cat. Then take a photo of another cat looking at the photo of the cat looking at the other cat. Then - okay, you get the idea. There are 556 photos in the sequence so far, which means there's a long way to go until we get infinite cats, but you can see the concept - using the inherent curiousity of cats to recreate the effect of an infinitely recursive mirror. Brilliant stuff - I'll be keeping an eye on this one.
Posts will generally fall into one of two categories:
- Bark: general observations, opinions or points of note on just about any subject under the sun, and
- Byte: technology related observations, mainly about videogames, but also on other computer-related or scientific hot topics.
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
You may have noticed recently that I've been a tad more lax than usual in updating the Mad Iain Blog. There have been several very good reasons for this. Firstly, I'm much busier at work, and I'm enjoying work much more recently; so I'm a lot less inclined to blog as a work-avoidance strategy. Secondly, I was rather unexpectedly offered a staff writer's position at a new videogames website, after an old online acquaintance pointed their webmaster in my direction; so I'm now devoting my writing energies to writing reviews for this new venture - and have had two reviews published within the last fortnight, with many more to come, hopefully. Since the site's only a month or two old, with a fairly small user base, it's not a paying position - though the site does have a few decent PR contacts, so we do get the odd review copy, and the occasional bit of free software is enough of a compensation for me - I'd write reviews just for the hell of it anyway.
I'm not going to say which website I'm working for - I've either already told you about it, or will get around to telling you in good time - if I want you to know about it - because in terms of my creative self, I want to make a clean break from all the history and dogma from my association with State. The appearance last week of yet another "I can't believe it's not a State Trying To Find A New Direction And Some Enthusiasm thread!" has pretty much sealed my decision to make a clean break from State creatively. I don't want to denigrate what Pat is doing with the State wiki one iota - it's a fine project, just one that doesn't interest me in the least, now that I've seen it evolve over the last couple of months. Wikis leave very little room for expression or personal creativity - and that's what I want to explore - that's what I feel being a writer is about.
Obviously, I'm not cutting ties with State *completely* - I've invested far too much time there over the last three or four years to do that; and I've got far too many friends there - but I'm not going to be nearly as active there as I used to be, as I find that as time goes on, my interest in State is waning. The opportunity to be there at the start and help form and shape a new online gaming community is much more enticing than trying to prod a well-established forum out of its torpor and apathy.
Therefore, it's time to move on, figuratively and literally - and that means the end of Mad Iain; a persona that's long outlived its usefulness and relevance. This has been an interesting exercise over the last year and a half, and if you've been an avid reader, thanks for your interest and time. All good things must come to an end, however, and it's nigh for these ravings.
As this blog's final huzzah, I'd like to say some "Thank you"'s.
Oskar - thanks for getting me interested in this writing business. You've got a lot to answer for! ;-)
Jamie - the Scottish Axis Of Evil will never be defeated!
Ian - a reluctant journalist and inspiration to all videogames writers; I salute you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the people I'd like to thank, but for all those of you out there who've shown an interest in the things I've written - whether it was a benign interest or not - thank you for your time, feedback and attention, regardless. Rest assured it's not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
So is this au revoir or adieu? I leave this up to you, fair reader. This may be the closing chapter of this book in my writing life, but the opening stanzas of the first chapter in the new book have already been written - and there will be many more to come, I'm sure. It's up to you to find them...
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Monday, November 15, 2004
Today was a Good News day. I got two e-mails I've been waiting for; one I've been waiting around a week for, and the other that I've been waiting over a year for. Both coincided today with joyous serendipity, which promises to make tomorrow one of the most momentous days of my life.
Yes, not only is the Uber-PC arriving tomorrow, but tomorrow also marks the arrival of the perfect game with which to test out its obscene processing power. Yes. Half-Life 2. *And* I get to work from home, so I don't miss the deliveries. Could it get any better?
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
The fucking maniacs jumped. Again, it all seems to hinge on one state - not Florida this time (though give it a couple of days for the legal challenges to come in about the integrity of the voting practices there) - but it looks like Ohio's going Bush's way.
I'm too depressed at the thought of another four years with Bush sitting in the White House like the smug chimp he is to write too much at the moment. It's not like this time we can even claim that Bush stole the vote or that the Democrats ran an ineffective campaign - simply more rednecks, morons and Christian Fundamentalists turned out for Bush than Kerry. Another triumph for fear and paranoia over hope and optimism. Humans are such fucking idiots.
I hereby propose that all right-minded liberal individuals club together their finances and build a spaceship to colonise Mars with a technological, intellectual meritocracy, where everyone gets to play videogames all day and look at the stars all night. Who's with me?
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
And only one question remains - do we jump or take a step back? This time tomorrow, we should know who is the next American President, or if the courts will decide who it will be. Anyone who's read this blog over the last year or so will know that I'm rooting for Kerry.
This election is being billed as the most important in a generation, and the pundits aren't wrong. If America can get of its collective behind, and be bothered to wait in queues for a couple of hours to exercise the democratic rights that they apparently hold dear (FOR APATHY!) then perhaps we can finally be rid of Bush's crooked cabal of CEOs and Neo-Conservative warmongers. If there's a high turnout (anything over the 50% mark) there's a chance that Kerry will win by a landslide, hence why you have the lovely Grand Old Party trying to disenfranchise voters, not just in one place, but here, there and everywhere. The Republicans can only win by suppressing democracy, by lying and cheating people out of the very things they claim to hold dear. The hypocrisy from the Bush camp is nothing short of outrageous, yet will the American people wise up to it and kick the bastards out of office? We can only hope so, for all our sakes.
Vote Unilateralist Preemptive Draft-dodger or Multi-lateralist Alliance-building Decorated War Veteran? It should be a clear cut choice. As usual, I'm with Michael Moore on this one - There's no way we can even contemplate anything but a Democrat victory; the consequences of another Bush win are too hideous to even think about. Four more years? Four more wars, more like.
Monday, November 01, 2004
With the impending arrival of Half-Life 2, and the death of my DVD drive last week, I decided this morning that the time has come to get a new PC. So having kept my eye on the market for a good six months now, I found an online retailer that sells Alienware spec Athlon 64s without the Alienware pricetag, and with a very similar Return To Base warranty that should guarantee trouble free computing. The fateful decision was made all the more easier by the fact that my expenses got paid into my account this morning, and that I get paid next week. My wallet now sits in my pocket with its guts ripped out, having haemorraged £980 to pay for my new toy, though since £820 of that came from my expenses anyway, it's not so bad, really. I'm used to having an overdraft, and since I get paid next week, that's not going to last long, anyway.
The spec of the machine is worth the immediate financial pain, anyway, particularly when you factor in that all the games I want between now and Christmas have been pre-ordered anyway. Once you read the specification below, I'm sure you'll agree it's money well spent, and should ensure that I don't have to worry about upgrading for the next couple of years.
Athlon 64 3500
1GB DDR400 RAM
SATA 160GB 7200rpm Hard Drive with 8MB cache
ATI Radeon X800 XT with 256MB and DVI
Soundblaster Audigy LS 5.1
52x32x52 CD-RW (and all the other bells and whistles, inc. Firewire, USB 2, etc)
Fleur will probably have a fit when it arrives (though at least she'll have to admit that it's got a sexier case; nice and shiny in burnished silver), and I've not decided what to do with the other tower yet, but all of a sudden I can't wait until it and Half-Life 2 arrive (probably in the same week)...
Monday, October 25, 2004
I bought Rome: Total War at the weekend. It's rather good, except for one thing. The voice cast. They're all bloody Australian. And they can't hide their accents. For a company that sets such stock on historical accuracy, who the hell thought that an Aussie voice cast would be a good idea? When in Rome... stick another shrimp on the barbie, would ya, cobber?
Friday, October 22, 2004
Below is the (non-advertising) content of an e-mail that's using some sort of Google string association to try and beat Spam filters on my webmail. It's like someone's been trying to use ViaVoice...
marriage perfect surely taste than less, eyes develop quick effect. road
conversation send week in talking knew grandma.
twice ticket obliged become somebody body perhaps hes marriage chief! step she
continuous twice! innocent loose fear beauty liked we family gentlemen" rich oh
shook small measure appreciate low opened recommend. big within make bright
knowing summer beauty business happiness hold"
pity black minutes embarrass receipt convenient dare skiing grabbed, put period
sound nobody picture after?
price keep believed apology get boy, parallel fact dinner very believed corner!
four begin heart among nice coming sale pray want, scare north past court change
sitting sound principle die. something playing countenance and succeed all
goes before tone carefully view hoping, wide silent moment side walk sorry bear
considered former. on spirits dog circle disappoint building small arrived
determined! cried buy next write everyone mean done accept.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2004
I'm bored out of my skull. I've got plenty of work to do, but I'm really not in the mood. So I'm going to go all High Fidelity and make a Top 5 list.
One) Empire Strikes Back - chosen (and at the top of the list) for completely sentimental reasons. Of all the Star Wars films, this is the best. It's the darkest in tone, has the best music and arguably the best set pieces. I first saw ESB when I was five years old (in 1981) and it's been etched on my mind ever since. If I could only watch one film ever again, it'd be this one.
Two) Heat - to my mind, the perfect action-thriller. Brilliant acting, glorious cinematography, masterful direction, great characters and beautiful pacing. And the firefight in the street after the heist. Words just fail to describe how good that is. Clearly not for everyone, as there are few sympathetic characters, and it may be too long and complex for some, but I wish more films were made like this.
Three) Dr Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying And Learnt To Love The Bomb - no film list would be complete without Kubrick, and this is my favourite of his many masterpieces. Again, it's a very dark film, with subtle humour intermixed with gags and juxapositions that whack you in the face, such as the immortal "You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" and the battle between Ripper's troops and the Army at the Air Base, whose motto "Peace is our business" on the base entrance sign forms the backdrop to a vicious firefight. Give such source material to people like Kubrick, Peter Sellars and George C. Scott, and you can't help but make a great film.
Four) The Big Lebowski - not the Coen's best film in terms of artistic or cinematic merit (that honour belongs to either The Man Who Wasn't There or Barton Fink) but outrageously funny, and an inspired reworking of The Big Sleep. My most watched Coen film. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman are fantastic.
Five) Starship Troopers - I'm bound to take some flak for this choice, but what can I say, I've got a soft spot for Sci-Fi. Paul Verhoeven is a massively underrated director, and he brings a staggering amount of intelligence to what could easily be construed as a no-brainer action picture. One of the few DVDs worth watching for its commentary alone, this is actually a very acerbic satire of American foreign policy and society that gets more accurate by the day. Verhoeven brilliantly subverts the original material of Heinlein's book and the archetypes of the All American Hero (most of the American audience didn't twig that the characters actually come from Buenos Aires in Argentinia). Ironic, funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and brilliant special effects.
One) Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic - did you seriously expect me to pick anything else? I'm now on my SEVENTH full run though the game, and have clocked up more than 220 hours on this by now. Being a Star Wars title obviously helps, but Bioware have done a staggering job on KOTOR. Great characters, great writing, a lovely game engine and gripping story all conspire to make this one of the great gaming experiences of all time.
Two) UFO - Enemy Unknown - my first love when it came to PC gaming. Still the best turn-based strategy on the PC. Like KOTOR, the first time through the game is a voyage of constant discovery and delight, and being able to assign the names of friends to your soldiers really gives the game a personal touch, and makes you form emotional attachments to your men. Not pretty by today's standards, but the depth of the gameplay just demonstrates how graphics aren't the be all and end of of providing the player with immersion.
Three) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - the game that has it all. Apart from top spot on this list, it would appear. Simply brilliant - a virtual playpen within which you can do what you wish, yet with enough structure to maintain long term interest, and production values that shame half of the videogames industry. The game gives you so much to do, and so much to do it with. Great for a half hour blast or an eight hour marathon, this is a game for all occasions.
Four) The Sims 2 - the virtual life simulator that just got better than life. A game with a staggering attention to detail, and a transparent system to provide direction to the game without curtailing player freedom. A game that thrives on the imagination you bring to it, this is a title with almost limitless potential.
Five) Baldur's Gate II - it was a close call between this and Star Wars: Supremacy, but in terms of hours eaten, BGII shades it. Probably the most popular AD&D RPG ever made, and certainly one of the most accomplished. If AD&D is your thing, it doesn't get much better than this.
Tomorrow - Spectrum games and music.
Monday, October 18, 2004
You would have thought 200 hours on a game would be enough, wouldn't you? But no. I'm playing KOTOR again. Before I finished up last night, I'd just become the proud owner of a Krayt Dragon Pearl and Sigil crystal enhanced violet double-bladed lightsaber. I'm looking forward to chopping up some Sith with it tonight.
I can now wipe through the whole of Taris, doing practically all of the quests in about four hours. Taris is by far the weakest part of the game, but four hours isn't too long to suffer before you get to the good stuff on Dantooine and beyond. Not that with a game like KOTOR you suffer. More that you lament that you don't get a lightsaber to play with.
I'm currently playing a goody-two-shoes Scout/Jedi Consular called Shaya, on my SEVENTH run through the game. I think I must be rivalling Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II combined for the number of hours I've sunk into this now. It's a terrible thing, videogaming, as my girlfriend would no doubt tell you.
Since I've now got a fairly swanky mobile phone, I've decided that I have to get myself a really annoying ring tone. I've seen people going around with The A-Team theme, and things like that, but I want mine to be a little bit more individual than that. So I'm going to use the Tank! theme from Cowboy Bebop instead. Oh yes.
Thursday, October 14, 2004
Monday, October 11, 2004
So, either George W. Bush is a grotesque freak with an incredulously bulging spine and back problem, or he's a cheating fink who couldn't even win a debate with outside help, spoon-feeding him answers through a radio earpiece. Either way, it doesn't do much to help his "Presidential" credibility...
Thursday, October 07, 2004
There is an extensive, yet fragmentary and circumstantial body of evidence suggesting that Saddam pursued a strategy to maintain a capability to return to WMD after sanctions were lifted...
It's on the basis of this statement in the Iraq Survey Group's report that Tony Blair and Jack Straw are maintaining the line that
The threat from Saddam Hussein in terms of his intentions... [is] ...even starker than we have seen before. You go into a court of law with a case built on fragmentary and circumstantial evidence, no matter how extensive, and you're going to get laughed out of court.
All the evidence that has come out of Iraq after the invasion has pointed to the fact that both the people of the US and the UK were lied to (or at least intentionally not told the whole truth) about the real threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime. It points to the willingness of the UK and US Governments to flout International Law and the UN to pursue their own agenda of regime change. It strikes at the very credibility and integrity of our governments.
I can't understand people who simply say "Oh, we can't change the past, we've got to make the best of it" because this simply isn't about Iraq - this makes a mockery of democracy - if the oldest Western democracies, the very paragons and champions of freedom and justice in the world, cannot act within International Law, why should we expect democracy imposed on Iraq (or anywhere else) to succeed or work to further Western interests?
No-one will deny that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but that alone cannot justify the war, and all the other "evidence" we were presented to justify the case with has proved to be false or unconfirmed at best. There were no WMD, there were no active weapons programmes, and with sanctions in place, no resources to re-open them either. There has never been any substantive or definitively proven connection between Iraq or Hussein's regime to the al-Qaida network - which even now Dick Cheney claims is there (despite being contradicted by trusty old Rummy) - and whilst it's true that Hussein supported Hamas, the same could be said of a lot of other Arabian governments. Hussein wasn't so much a supporter of terrorism (International or not) - he was simply an enemy of Israel (again, like much of the Middle East, because of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands).
What the ISG's report shows is that Saddam Hussein had been successfully contained by UN sactions and weapons inspections, and that he did not have the resources to be a threat, certainly not in the short term, as was claimed by the UK and US. Had Hans Blix been given more time to complete the inspection process, it would have proved that the invasion was not necessary, and the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians and 1,000 US troops need not have been lost.
Had we walked away from Iraq and left Iraq to Saddam, Saddam would have indeed built up his capabilities, built up his strength and posed an even greater threat.
Jack Straw again. How's that for a disingenuous statement? The key argument I keep hearing from "hawks" who supported the war is "What would you have done with Hussein?" The truth is that the international community wouldn't have walked away from Iraq. A dozen years of sanctions and inspections after the 1991 Gulf War ensured that Hussein couldn't rebuild his weapons. Are we supposed to believe that they simply would have stopped? It was perfectly possible to keep Saddam Hussein in place and prevent him from developing WMD, and if his regime was truly so objectionable, invasion is not the only method of regime change. The US government has supported many other coups to depose (or indeed, install) dictators in the past. Had the US government given adequate support to the Shia uprising after the first Gulf War (after inciting it in the first place), I wouldn't be typing this now. The facts are that it suited the US government's purposes to keep Saddam in place, until they could put together a suitable plan to implement the Republican New American Century agenda, and let the Bush family's friends line their cash with Iraqi oil revenue. Instead of helping the Iraqi people rise up to depose a hated dictator and choose their own path, the US instead chose to flout International Law and install a government of hand-picked and approved exiles, who are widely seen as a Puppet Government in the Arab world. Add to this the "free and fair" elections in January that will most likely take place in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, if they take place at all (which is by no means a foregone conclusion). I don't believe that anyone can honestly say that the world is a safer place after the invasion of Iraq, and anyone who's taken a trip to the petrol pumps lately will know of the calamatous effect the war and the subsequent regional instability in the Middle East has had on oil prices. Of course, it's a COMPLETE COINCIDENCE that the Bush family has financial interests in the oil industry...
The whole thing really infuriates me, firstly that its happened, and secondly that the public seems so desensitised and apathetic that we're letting the bastards get away with it. I'd say more, but I don't want the Thought Police bashing down my door in the middle of the night...
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
The Iraq Survey Group reports that Saddam Hussein had no WMD in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion last year. What is the official response from UK Government? Jack Straw says that Hussein was an even greater threat than first thought!
On the basis of what, exactly? The intention that he wanted to build WMD? Which he didn't have the capability (or resources) to do with UN Inspectors crawling around Iraq, and now that the backers who gave him all his WMD for the Iran-Iraq War (i.e. The UK and US) were now intent on beating him with a big stick?
Yes, we can invade your country if you have a passing thought that you'd like chemical or nuclear weapons.
You've got to give Orwell credit, though. He thought he was writing a political satire - it turns out he was writing a handbook for the new model of 21st Century Governance.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
With all the time I've been spending on the M3 lately, I've decided that it's time to invest in a new mobile phone. I do still have a four year old Motorola m3788e knocking about, but the battery is totally shot and barely lasts a day on standby, so I can't really use it. I was thinking about another Pay As You Go phone, but our resident mobile phone expert at work, Olly, has tipped me off to just how spectacularly cheap mobile phone contracts are these days, if you find the right deal.
Such as this one. Argos would seem to be a very odd place to find killer mobile phone deals, but this is very hard to beat, as it's exactly the same as the equivalent deal from the Carphone Warehouse, but with an extra £50 in cash-back. And it comes with a £10 Argos voucher! With the half-price line rental, it actually works out cheaper than home phone, or a PAYG phone, as you don't pay for the handset or connection, and you get 500 free minutes of calls (to any network) plus 100 texts a month inclusive of the line rental, and I'll never use the phone that much. The handset even has a camera on it that can take video snippets.
Before you rush off and buy one, wait until next Monday when I can give you my phone number so I can get a nice referral fee...
Friday, October 01, 2004
I became the lowest of the low last night. I spawn-camped on Battlefront.
In a stolen AT-ST scout walker.
But, oh, didn't it feel *so* good...
It was on the Dune Sea map, and the Empire were down to their last couple of Command Posts. Someone had leapt out of their walker to secure another post, when I came sneaking around the corner (having just joined the server) and nicked it, blasting it's poor, hapless ex-driver. Whilst this was going on, they lost their other posts, meaning that all the Imperials spawned at that Command Post. I just stood their waiting for people to spawn, blasting them to hell, before they even had a chance to move, again and again, five at a time, until they ran out of Reinforcement points. Having had the same thing done to me a day or two previously on Hoth, damn, it was satisfying, and I top scored on the server, despite only being in the game for about three minutes.
Overall, last night wasn't as good as the previous night - with the rather unbalanced forces and the unfortunate way it handles respawning (it just spawns you somewhere on the map, without letting you choose - unlike UT Onslaught, for example) the game experience is truly dependent upon the quality of the people you have around you, and the servers I was on last night were gash, both in terms of the people on them and the damnable Lag Monster. Play on a decent server however, and it rocks, as people work together to compensate for the unbalance inherent between the Imperial and Rebel forces. If people don't work together, however, it turns into a walkover for the most powerful side (usually the Empire), and if you happen to be on the wrong side, it's not much fun. I'd say overall it's somewhere between a 70% and an 80% game, depending upon your enthusiasm for Star Wars and the people you're playing with. I still haven't played the Single Player campaign yet, and I'm not really sure I'll bother. I can't see it being more compelling than the online game, and I'm pretty clued up on most of the maps now. If only I had a slightly faster PC, I could have it looking a lot better, too.
Whatever money I have left over from my expenses from getting the car serviced on Monday will probably go towards buying a new PC in the next month or two - a big incentive being that Vivendi have finally announced a release date for Half-Life 2, which they might actually stick to this time, provided the continuing legal wrangling between themselves and Valve doesn't get in the way yet again. It doesn't make much sense to me - they have a phenomenal game (which has just got 96% from PC Gamer UK) which is going to make them both staggering amounts of cash, and they're fannying about arguing over the proverbial cherry on top of this very large cash-cake. It's already a year late, I'd prefer that they didn't make it two...
A moment of great excitement occured on the M3 this morning.
I'm coming up to the Basingstoke junction, which is always a bit of a blackspot, such as yesterday, both inside lanes and the hard shoulder were crammed with cars going here there and everywhere at practically a standstill, because they were queuing at the junction for about half a mile, causing everyone else to have to pile desperately into the outside lane to avoid an accident. But we're drifting off-topic - I was talking about today. So I'm coming up to this very same junction, and there are no queues so I can happily toddle along in the middle lane at 70. About half a mile short of the junction, suddenly the outside lane about 200 metres infront of me turns to smoke.
Literally, I can't see anything in the outside lane but smoke. My first thought is "Accident!" so I pop on the Hazards and drop down about 45, as this trail of smoke makes its way over to the hard shoulder, getting gradually closer, and now almost completely blocking the view of the carriageway.
Fortunately, it disperses pretty quickly, and I see that it wasn't an accident after all, but it's just a single car with a problem. A BIG problem. As I pass the car, I see it's one of these Honda Civic CRX's (the one with the flat back, think Blista Compact from GTA: Vice City) has blown its engine, Formula 1 style, with huge plumes of smoke still pouring from the engine as it comes to a stop on the hard shoulder.
That'll teach him for speeding like a fucking maniac.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
The Star Wars: Battlefront dreams have started. Not content with fighting the Battle of Hoth online, I've started dreaming about it now. A sure sign of a obsessive gaming compulsion that's likely to rival KOTOR and Baldur's Gate. That percentage is steadily creeping up. Perhaps up to 80% now, because the more I play this, the more I like it.
I think I've seen all the maps now, and most of them are pretty good, and a couple really stand out; Hoth, Endor, the two Bespin maps, the Naboo palace map. The Naboo palace map is architecturally gorgeous, literally like stepping into the films. Hoth is probably my favourite map. You might think ice fields would be a tad bland, but the key to Hoth are the use of vehicles, not the infantry actions. Last night defending the base I jumped into an anti-personnel turret guarding the western entrance to the base. It was nearly six minutes (and 20 kills, including two AT-STs) before the Imperials realised what was picking them off and sent an AT-AT to sort me out. I bailed just in time from the turret, and secured a Command Post before getting blasted by a Scout walker. We still lost the match, because people were flying off in Speeders without a gunner, but I topped out the kills list on the server, which was rather satisfying. In a later game on Hoth as the Imperials, I also had a very good run in an AT-ST, as I'd picked the Imperial Pilot class, which heals the vehicle you're in. So I wasn't taking much damage even though people were pummelling me in Speeders. I wandered over to the shield generator, and just kept hammering people as they spawned, which is a tad nasty, but the same thing happened to me the previous night, so I was just getting a little payback. I also nailed down the hanger for about five minutes, blasting the Speeders before people could use them, until a co-ordinated attack of people with missile launchers finally did me in.
The Endor level is rather good too - I've only played it as the Empire so far, and it's quite an intimidating experience being charged by half a dozen whooping Ewoks. Thankfully, they're rather low on hitpoints, and a standard trooper with the Blaster Rifle can take them out very easily if your aim is good enough. It's great fun zipping about on Speeder Bikes, though the level's a bit tight with all the trees to use the AT-STs on. The Imperials need the vehicles, though, since their white armour just makes you a big target in the woods, whilst the Rebels all have camouflage, making them much harder to spot.
The one other memorable moment of last night was being eaten by the Sarlacc on the Dune Sea level on Tatooine. I'll have to try not to get so close next time...
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
I'm going to have to nudge that percentage I gave you yesterday up a few points. After a more extended play last night, and having seen a few more maps, I'm finding it really rather enjoyable. Games purists would argue that the game is horribly broken by the lack of balance between the forces on a couple of the maps, but I quite like the way one side is put completely at a disadvantage (usually in terms of vehicles), because it forces people to work together. I saw some pretty astounding defensive co-ordination last night from some people who were obviously from a Clan who've had a lot of practice on other online shooters.
They were on the Rebel side of the Battle Of Hoth, splitting up evenly to man the defensive turrets and the Snowspeeders, combining to neutralise the Imperial walkers are quickly as possible, whilst still taking time to help out with the infantry battle. The Battle Of Hoth should be a walkover for the Imperials, but here they really cleaned house, through some very intelligent play. It was a shame my connection to the server dropped after a couple of games, because it was a real learning experience and a joy to watch people that good play.
The servers I was on last night had much better players on than before, and that really enhances the experience. I was still pleasingly close to the top of the Server Scores, and got the DeadEye award a couple of times, which was nice. Though I did get the Traitor award once on Hoth for accidentally blowing up three of my team-mates (and myself) when a Thermal Detonator didn't go *quite* where I'd intended. I managed to get the Killing Spree award in the same game, however, again with a Thermal Detonator when I had five Rebels fortuitously spawn infront of me at a Command Post.
I even briefly tried a Clone Wars server. The overall experience isn't as good as on the Galactic Civil War servers, but still pretty interesting. The CIS rocket tank is pretty awesome, and playing as a Droideka is quite challenging. The droids are all very vulnerable to blaster fire, but the Droideka has a shield that renders it almost invincible, the catch being that you can only use it for a limited amount of time before it needs to recharge. The second catch is that you need to have deployed the Droideka to use it, meaning that your walking pace is painfully slow. You could get outrun by sloths. Seriously. This means that to get anywhere quickly across the level, you need to retract your weapons and roll, meaning you can go places quickly, but can't defend yourself. It takes some practice to play and get used to only using the shield intermittently, so that it's not deactivating at the critical moment in a firefight, and learning how to (literally) roll out of trouble. I'll probably stick to the Civil War servers more often than not, though.
This might eat more hours away from Sims 2 than I previously thought...
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
As videogames go, this has 70% written all over it. It doesn't do anything new, the weapons are all blasters with no real character (just different firing rates and blast patterns), the one vehicle I had chance to try (the Rebel Snowspeeder) was practically uncontrollable, and the graphics engine isn't nearly as pretty or as smooth as Unreal Tournament 2004's. I had to turn everything down to minimum to get a frame rate out of it - BUT - I fought The Battle Of Hoth last night. As the Rebels. We lost, predictably, despite me personally taking down two AT-ATs with rockets and the defensive turrets. It's much more fun than Joint Operations - battles are tighter and faster, and the ability to take any Command Post on the map means that you have more tactical flexibility. The ability to see blaster fire also makes it a whole lot less likely that you're going to be taken out from halfway across the map without ever knowing what has hit you, which removes a big source of frustration from most other online shooters.
It's still early days, so no-one really seems to be co-ordinating their teamwork yet, but it's still easy enough to make a difference as just the one man on a 20 player server. I only had the time to try three maps (on two different servers because the first one, where I played on Tatooine, was like a slideshow), and the maps are okay without being special. Hoth is as featureless as you expect, turning it into a little bit of a turkey shoot for the guys in the Imperial vehicles, but even as a Rebel I was still second top of my server with 29 frags (just two behind the top player), plus I got the Deadeye award two games running for being the most accurate player. On the other map (a waterfront/pier map which I think is meant to be on Naboo) I came out on top with 41 frags and the least deaths with 16 (two of which were accidental from a team-mate; watch that crossfire, boys!). Obviously, your experience of the game is coloured by how well you're doing compared to everyone else, so coming out top is pretty satisfying.
Anyone who's clipped my head off in a Manta on UT2004 will know that I'm only an average FPS player, so I get the feeling that Battlefront is My First Online Shooter for a lot of people, because it's not often I hit the top of a server scoreboard. A lot of people are just standing still whilst firing - so they're either having frame rate problems or are new to the genre, because they're easy pickings for people with a bit of UT experience like me. People aren't really exploiting the thermal detonators very well yet either, using them on open ground, instead of using them to choke up Command Posts in buildings. I gave a couple of people camping in a Command Post hut on the Waterfront map a very nasty surprise by sneaking up in the blind spot of their turret, and chucking a couple of thermal detonators into the hut...
The standard Trooper class appears to be the best rounded - I don't like the blast cannon carried by the Dark Trooper (or the equivalent Bowcaster for the Wookiee) - it's the blaster equivalent of a shotgun, uses lots of ammo in one go and has a wide blast spread, meaning it's only really useful at point blank range, unlike the standard blast rifle, which is great at anything up to medium range. The Missile trooper class is essential for the Rebels, particularly against AT-ATs and AT-STs, though you need a group of half a dozen people with them co-ordinating to take vehicles out quickly - AT-ATs are incredibly tough. The sniper class is a bit rubbish; not enough ammo in a clip and the fire rate is actually a little too fast.
The game is undoubtedly a lot of fun. Its appeal is limited by the emphasis on recreating Star Wars battles, but I think even a Star Wars hater could get a measure of satisfaction out of it. It's not big (only 16 maps - though there will probably be expansion packs coming out), it's not clever (I've not tried the Single Player yet, but reports of the AI say that it's dumber than a bag of hammers), but there's some joy to be had running around as a Stormtrooper blasting Rebel Scum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn't see that many Clone Wars servers knocking about - though I will give one a try in the near future. I can't see it gobbling away too many hours away from my Sims 2 obsession, but it's good enough to have a quick blast on if you don't want to settle down for the night on something.
Monday, September 27, 2004
After the worst of starts, my weekend was actually quite good. It all started so innocuously too; I accompanied the gang down to the Clubhouse at IBM Hursley to have a drink at lunch, and all was fine and dandy. Unusually, I hadn't left my glasses on the top of my PC case (as I usually do - my optician advised me not to wear them when using a computer, because I'm not completely short-sighted and it's more stressful on my eyes to wear them for up close work than not) and wore them on the way down to the Clubhouse. After about half an hour, they were starting to annoy me, so I put them in my coat pocket.
What happened next is a bit of a mystery. Somewhere between the Clubhouse and my desk, my glasses disappeared from my pocket, and because I don't wear them when I'm working I didn't notice until nearly 6pm, by which time the whole site is practically deserted. I retraced all my steps, and there's no sign of them, and because it's so late, I can't check if they've been handed in at Reception. Meaning that I have to drive home without my glasses. Forty miles. Down the M3. At rush hour. On a Friday night. Not the best of starts to a weekend, especially considering the glasses in question will cost over £170 to replace. (£129 for the frames, £42 for the anti-glare and anti-scratch coatings)
I checked at Reception this morning, and nothing has been handed in, meaning that they've probably been kidnapped by Hursley's large population of rebel squirrels. Still, at least I didn't crash the Coupé on the way home. (Though I did dream about crashing it for the last couple of nights - I hope that's not a premonition)
So on Saturday, I dig out my old pair of glasses (thankfully my prescription hasn't changed much, just the frames aren't quite so sexy) and Fleur and I swan off to pick up our Canadian friend Chris in Richmond. We all head off to Guildford for the afternoon (Lunch in Wagamama - the Noodle Soup with Chilli Beef is highly recommended) and to do some shopping (XIII for £9.99, minus a nice 10% discount thanks to my HMV Games card) before heading home for me to demo all my nicest games (Sims 2, KOTOR, Need For Speed Underground, amongst others) in order to persuade him to trade in his laptop and buy a new PC.
We then have dinner (a signature Boeuf Bourguignonne), Chris watches a film with Fleur, whilst I get my Sims 2 daughter to seduce two of the local teenage girls (Meadow and Tosha) to fulfill all of her Romance Aspiration Wants and get enough Aspiration Bonus points to get another Elixir of Life dispenser. By that point, it's getting towards midnight, and Fleur wants to go to bed.
I immediately de-camp into the front room with Chris, we crack out our laptops and get Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight up and running for a bit of head to head deathmatch. We both grab another glass of wine and duel on the Bespin map until around 3am (my second 3am finish in a row - I'd stayed up watching my Star Wars Trilogy DVDs on the Friday to relax after the self-inflicted annoyance of being stupid enough to lose my glasses), after a fairly closely fought contest (36-27 in my favour).
On Sunday we get up reasonably early (considering the late night) and I demo Chris a bit more of KOTOR before we go back into Richmond to meet up with Tanya (Chris's other half) who's just literally got back from Toronto, around 7am in the morning. We have lunch at a lovely little resteraunt called Brula's - where we had a three course lunch for less than £15 each, whereupon Chris and Tanya take the opportunity to drop the bombshell that they've just gotten engaged. So that's another Wedding we've got to look forward to (which will no doubt clash with the Farnborough Airshow - AGAIN). We drop Tanya back off at their flat so she can get some sleep (since she was kept awake for the whole journey by kids sitting behind her) and do a little shopping in Richmond. I manage to pick up a copy of Star Wars: Battlefront (which had been sold out in Guildford) as another comfort purchase (again with a nice 10% discount from HMV), plus a new Casio Databank watch from Argos to store all my phone numbers, as the strap had broken on my previous Databank watch.
We then head on home to have a relaxing evening (which I spend defragging the hard drives on my desktop and laptop) and an early night. If it hadn't started so badly, we would have been getting on for the perfect weekend.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
The Sims 2. It gets my vote, anyway. I stuck in something between 10-12 hours on this at the weekend and it's simply one of the best games I've ever played. EA have a poor track record of milking cash cows and flogging dead horses, but what Maxis have done with The Sims 2 is astonishing. It's the same game as before, but with all the constant micromanagement removed, a whole lot more depth added, wrapped up in a superb graphics engine.
The Sims themselves are adorable. Cute, beautifully animated, and much more expressive and lively than in the previous game. They're far more customisable than before, and it's possible to create reasonable likenesses of your friends and family. There's a decent selection of clothing, too, and plenty of household items to lust after. The one thing I didn't like about the first game (it being impossible to interact with the NPCs like the Maid and Gardener other than firing them) has been corrected, meaning that it's now possible to hit on the hired help.
The six "Needs" that characterised the way that the Sims behaved in the first game are still there, but have been refined so that your Sims don't need to be constantly told to go to the toilet before they soil themselves - they're far more self reliant and intelligent, cutting down on the micromanagement that you need to do - which can only be a good thing. The astrological personalities are still the major drivers behind a Sim's behaviour, but Maxis have added in Wants and Fears, characterised by an aspiration, be that wanting a Family, or wanting Fortune, Romance or Knowledge. This individual aspiration manifests itself in short and long term Wants (such as wanting to sleep with another Sim, or to buy a particularly expensive painting) and Fears (such as having a flirt rejected, or having a family member die). The Wants and Fears add much needed clarity to the game, making it simple to know what your Sim wants to get out of life, rather than just grind your way up the career ladder (which is still present, only of less importance to the social aspects of the game).
The Wants and Fears change according to how much progress you make up the aspiration scale, and are dependent upon which kind of aspiration your Sim has. This gives you a fantastic variety of things to do - whilst the original could get a bit samey, this has lots of different things to do, since no two Sims will ever have the same Wants or Fears. Now that Sims age and die, there's a real need in the game to ensure that Sims carry on their line, with children taking on traits from their parents. It also makes you identify with your Sims that much more, and form genuine emotional attachments to them. I felt real sympathy for poor Fleur as she waddled around the house for a couple of days becoming increasingly pregnant with our second child, and I'm astonishingly protective of my teenaged daughter. My Sim-self has an all pervading fear of changing my newborn son's nappy though - who says that games can't be realistic?
There are now cutscenes to commemorate special events, like a teenager's first romantic kiss, an engagement and the birth of a child (this cutscene in particular is very clever). I can't overstate the quality of the character animation - it's a quantum leap beyond what No One Lives Forever brought to First Person Shooters. The animation is so beautifully observed and executed - the lifting weights animation on the workbench in particular is fantastic, with straining faces, quivering arms and groaning effort. The kissing animations are a tad racy to say the least - the Sims aren't shy at all when they're making out.
There's so much more I want to write about - the Aspiration rewards, the animated TV programs and the way aging has been implemented into the game, for example - but you're probably better off discovering it for yourself. I'm already about 14 hours in, and I'm still discovering new ways to interact with the Sims and new stuff to do. I've not even *touched* the Community aspect of the game yet, either, where you can pop into town for a Yoga session, go out for the evening or do the grocery shopping. Suffice to say that this is simply one of the best produced games since the golden days of LucasArts. Without question, it's a wonderful, beautiful game and deserves to sell more copies than the Bible, which knowing EA's marketing department, it will.
Friday, September 17, 2004
If you've not completed Hordes Of The Underdark yet but have ambitions to do so, go away now. Otherwise I'm seriously going to spoil it for you.
Last chance now.
I managed to complete Hordes Of The Underdark last night, with about an hour's gaming time to spare. Shockingly, it doesn't end in a hugely anti-climatic battle, like most RPGs. Instead, you get to duke it out with an Archdevil in one of Waterdeep's courtyards, who does all sorts of nasty things like trying to turn your henchmen against you, and summoning lava and ice elementals to try and drain your hitpoints (making environmental resistance items pretty much compulsory). Once you have sufficiently beaten Mephistopheles to a pulp, he'll surrender and beg you not to kill him. "Please, your honor, spare my life" to which my Evil Ranger replied "There is no honor" and promptly killed him. Interestingly, you don't actually need to fight him at all, if you get his True Name a little earlier in the game from The Knower Of Names (at the cost of 500,000gp!), and you can simply banish him from Toril. I (or rather Thaeonia), however, wanted blood. After all, she proclaimed "This world is mine!" before she slaughtered him - as it's not exactly a wise thing to do, leaving an Archdevil at your back nursing a grudge...
Once the battle is over, it segues nicely into an epilogue that concludes the story and tells you what happened afterwards to all the characters involved. It's definitely going to be worth replaying with a neutral character and a good character, to see how these accounts change. Convincing Aribeth to stay evil once you rescue her spirit from Cania has pretty nasty consequences for Neverwinter (she goes off afterwards to haunt it and cause all sorts of mayhem), but it was nice to see happy endings for Sharwyn and Deekin. Obviously treating people differently or not doing certain actions, such as betraying The Seer or using a different second henchman instead of Sharwyn in the first chapter will alter the tales. It should be fun to experiment and find out just how mutable the ending is. I'd say it's a far more satisfactory ending to both of the previous single player campaigns.
Though it's possibly not as great as The Sims 2, which should be waiting for me when I get home tonight. I'm going to get this pun in before everyone else does for my prediction of what it's going to be like: SIMSATIONAL!
Thursday, September 16, 2004
Wednesday, September 15, 2004
1) Drivers who give way when THEY have the right of way.
They think they're being polite. What they're actually doing is unnecessarily holding up traffic and increasing the likelihood of the driver being let through having an accident (making them liable for not obeying the right of way laws, to boot). If you have right of way, USE IT! If people on the road can't get out of side streets or from behind parked cars, that's THEIR problem.
2) Stupid environmental puzzles in RPGs.
I've nearly completed Hordes Of The Underdark now, getting to the same spot I did last time before I gave up/changed my hard drive. The Puzzler's Sepulchure is a lava filled room dotted with platforms that have levers to teleport you from one platform to another, and rotating arrows on the platforms to tell you which direction you will go when you pull the lever. Three of the platforms have second levers. At the opposite end of the lava pool is a doorway blocked off by lightning, in front of which are three 8-way rotatable gargoyle statues and yet another lever. Your only clue to solve the puzzle goes something like "Stone to Stone the stone must face, Lightning to lightning the lightning fades." Pretty fucking weak. How exactly are you meant to solve that by anything other than trial and error?
The solution, incidentally, is to use the floor levers on the lava platforms to light up the statues in blue (there being no indication at all that pulling the lever more than once changes the colour of the light) and have the three statues face the door, before pulling the final lever infront of the lightning filled doorway. The clue's pretty tenuous at best, and there are no real excuses for puzzles like this - it's simple time filler, frustrating and random time filler at that. It's within an hour of the end of the game - why bother putting it there at all? Why not just get straight to the conclusion? After sinking 15-20 hours into the campaign, who wants to be sat around frustrated for a couple of hours solving a puzzle by trial and error because you're not given an adequate enough a clue to solve it logically? I got the solution off GameFAQs this morning, because Sims 2 arrives on Friday, and I want to have the Neverwinter Nights trilogy of campaigns all completed beforehand, and puzzles like this one don't add anything to the experience of what's otherwise a very enjoyable game.
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Scientists announce that the world's first Fly Eating Robot uses human excrement in order to attract its meals. Frighteningly, this is actually the first step towards producing a fully self-sufficient robot. I don't know what's more worrying - that we're building flesh eating robots, or that human shit is a vital component. Suddenly The Matrix looks a lot more benign...
Monday, September 13, 2004
A more traditional blog entry today. I'm desperately trying to complete Hordes Of The Underdark before The Sims 2 arrives on Friday. I can see Sims 2 absolutely consuming most of my free time for the next month or two, so I really want to make sure I've gotten HOTU out of the way before I start on it.
I've gotten to the third (and final) chapter again with my Evil Ranger, who is still being faithfully followed by Deekin, despite her dastardly betrayal of the Seer at the tail end of Chapter Two. It's nice to see a game that actually goes to the effort of rewarding you for roleplaying an evil character - something that was almost impossible in Baldur's Gate - and it's pretty much true to say that Evil characters have more fun.
The sections of the game in the Underdark have quite a bit of variety, and there are a few nice puzzles and set pieces. The Beholder caves and the Dead Magic dungeon (whose primary resident is a very nasty Bebelith) are particular highlights. The third chapter is possibly the most bizarre of the three (though I won't spoil it here) with Dragons as barkeeps and armour eating Mimics, amongst other things. I'm fairly close to the final showdown with The Big Baddie, so I hope to have the game wrapped up in the next couple of evenings. It's easily the most interesting of the three NWN single player campaigns, and though it starts quite slowly (a fault with most of Bioware's games, if the truth be known) it's still worth trying out the new character kits for a couple of hours. With the campaign starting with a character level of 15, it's actually possible to start the game with a Level 5 Bard/Level 10 Red Dragon Disciple if you assign your skill points wisely. The ten levels in Red Dragon Disciple give you the extra melee muscle you need at the start of the game (as well as a lovely breath weapon), and the Bard song is still pretty handy. I'm tempted to experiment with a Pale Master as well, since there are still a few encounters with Undead in the game. The offer on Play for the Deluxe Edition of NWN and both expansion packs is definitely worth a crack for £18, if you've never tried your hand at an RPG.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
All too often you hear the question on videogames forums "Are videogames Art?" but rarely does the discourse answering it go beyond "Yes." or "Don't be so fucking stupid." The reason for this is because most people struggle to find a definition of "Art" that they can agree upon.
So let's define terms. What is "Art"? What makes the Mona Lisa "Art" and an advertising billboard showing off the new Renault Mégane's arse "Not Art"? It's not simply that critics like Brian Sewell will coo pretentiously about "form" or "colour palette" over one but not the other.
Art takes many forms; painting, sculpture, writing, cinema, theatre, collage, tapestry, to name but a few. Yet this doesn't help define what Art is. Art is not just a thing, Art is a purpose. Art is more than having an image or statue to look at. Art is making a unique statement, and Art is the consideration of that statement. Art makes you look at yourself, not just at the artist's work.
This is what makes the Mona Lisa "Art", rather than just a simple portrait. The Mona Lisa makes you think - it makes you ask questions. Why does she only have an enigmatic half-smile? Shouldn't she be happy and honoured to have her portrait taken by the greatest living artist of her time? Why does she not seem happy? What would I have to be feeling to make me look like that? Why has Da Vinci not shown her smiling anyway? What is he trying to say about his subject? Art is much more than simply looking at well composed images, or appreciating beautifully structured dialogue.
If you agree to the above definitions, it is clear that very few videogames could be classed as Art. It is difficult to find examples of games that make you question your own nature, rather than simply bombard you with stunning images.
So which videogames are Art? It will no doubt surprise many people, but in this humble correspondent's opinion, Doom is Art. Doom possesses a singular clarity of purpose - to frighten and thrill the player. Doom is horror. Doom is violence. Doom is fun. Fun? How can horror and violence be fun? Immediately cognitive dissonance sets in. The player is thrust into the utmost peril, surrounded by growling, snarling demonspawn baying for your blood. Your only tool is violence, and the swift application of that violence. The only way to save your life is to take that of others. Kill or be killed. Darwinism as a videogame.
Doom is intense, enthralling and exhilarating. Yet it still makes you question yourself. Why is the sensation of mortal danger thrilling? Why is the act of taking life exhilarating? Is the act of killing really fun? Could I actually take a life?
Doom is an exercise in power. Doom recognises the fact that we all want power to some degree, and makes us face our nature by giving us the ultimate power of control over life and death. Doom is Art.
Doom III on the other hand, is not Art. The simple reuse of themes with better presentation does not make Doom III Art. Without trying to say something new, something unique, Doom III is nothing more than a plaything with an astonishing graphics engine. Like the vast majority of videogames (and mainstream cinema) Doom III does not make a unique statement, making it more akin to Pop Art than Art. Despite the name, Pop Art is not truly Art. Pop Art is about creating iconic, striking images for mass consumption and profit. Pop Art bombards the senses without thought or reason, and with scant regard for analysis. Pop Art is emotive, yet does not need to be unique or singularly purposed. Pop Art regurgitates themes without trying anything new, simply presenting itself with greater panache and style. Summer film blockbusters are Pop Art. Videogames are Pop Art.
Instead of asking the question "Are videogames Art?" we should instead consider the question "If videogames are not Art, is that a bad thing?"
The primary purpose of videogames is to entertain. Art may be many things - unique, profound, thought provoking - but few people would consider it mass entertainment. If a medium's primary raison d'être is to provide entertainment for the masses, isn't that medium mutually exclusive to being Art? If so, how can the perception of that medium not having artistic merits be viewed as bad?
Like film or theatre, recent history suggests that videogames can be used to present Art, but that does not mean that ALL videogames or ALL films should try to be Art. Art is not the logical conclusion for all entertainment media. Art is not appreciated - or indeed wanted - by everyone. It should not be seen as the ultimate aim of every videogame produced. If a game provides joy, what does it matter if it is not Art? A few select games will be Art, and will be recognised and appreciated as such, but this is not to say that all other games have no value because they are not.
Before you even ask the question "Are videogames Art?" you should ask yourself the question "Do I understand Art?". Unless you can answer "Yes" to the latter, any answer to the former is ultimately futile.
Thursday, September 09, 2004
The last couple of nights I've been having very odd dreams. The most memorable part of each dream has been of brushing my teeth. Not an unusual action in itself, but it's not the act that is memorable - it was the result of that action. Namely an intense sense of pain, and spitting blood instead of toothpaste - as if the teeth themselves (not the gums) were bleeding.
Looking up the three main keywords from the dream on a Dream Dictionary gave the following results.
Brushing of teeth: "To dream that you are brushing your teeth, signifies your level of confidence, struggles and aggressiveness. You need to look out for yourself and your own interest."
Pain: "To dream that you are in pain, signifies that you are being too hard on yourself with regards to a situation that was out of your control."
Bleeding: "To dream that you are bleeding or losing blood, signifies that you are suffering from exhaustion or that you are feeling emotionally drained. It may also denote bitter confrontations between you and your friends. Your past actions have come back to haunt you."
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what *that* dream means, does it? Internet forums, eh? They fuck you up. Just say no, kids.
"People should be able to get prescriptions for beer through the national health system," he said.
Conclusive proof, if any more were needed, that Britain is backward-thinking in its approach to the public services.
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
It's no great surprise that my post yesterday put a few noses out of joint. This whole thing has spiralled WAY out of proportion purely because two people couldn't agree, or agree to disagree.
I'd like to offer an olive branch and an apology to #state, because the majority of the people there don't deserve the label I branded with them last night. My harshest and most consistent critics (and you know who you are) may spend a lot their time there, but that doesn't give me the right to brand you all with a demon brush.
I have to accept a lot of the blame for the dreadfully undignified manner of my departure, but I hope that people will understand why I reacted in the way I did, and that it's not easy to run a website in the face of constant non-constructive criticism from people who know what they want, but are seemingly unable to put in the effort or take the responsibility upon themselves to achieve it.
The recrimination has been long, hard and bitter, and I'm sure SFE would like to make me the villain of the piece as much as I'd like to make it him. The sad truth of the matter is that we're all at fault - for letting the issue of personality get in the way of what's best for State.
I've stepped aside for several reasons - primarily because I don't want to do it anymore, but also because my ability to inspire and enthuse the forum appears to have waned. It's Forumism in action - the newer and more vigourous personalities step up to take over when the Old Guard comes off Watch. Pat and SFE have ideas on how State should be run, and it's their turn to try and make them into a reality.
I can't hold SFE a grudge (not for long, anyway - much as I found his method of forcing change distasteful) because he believes precisely the same thing I did when I secured the hosting deal for the new server 18 months ago - that His Way is the Best Way for State. I'm sure he will find that now he's been given the responsibility of trying to turn that vision into a reality is a lot harder than you first think. SFE's like me in a way - a strong, eloquent and abrasive personality (with the occasional dash of charm) and he's going to have critics, but I won't be one of them.
Despite the ignominous manner of the termination of my tenure in charge, both he and Pat have my full support and blessing to take State in any direction they want. Like Oskar and Jamie before me, I have no intention of interfering in how State evolves, no matter how much I may have done things differently.
The WikiSite idea floating around the forum at the moment is an interesting one, and appears to have a lot of support - the challenge for Pat and SFE (and the rest of the mods, of course) is maintaining that initial rush of support and enthusiasm beyond the first couple of weeks. If history is anything to go by, the "New Era" Honeymoon period on State is only a short one - make the most of it while you can.
Finally, I'd like to publically thank the people who contacted me last night via MSN, e-mail and forum PM to express their understanding, and their gratitude for what I've done for State in the last 18 months. It's nice to know that the blood, sweat, tears (and money) I've put into State during my time in charge hasn't gone unnoticed or unappreciated.
I hope now that we can draw a line under this whole unseemly mess and get on with enjoying State for what makes it special - a community of well informed and intelligent games lovers - because the vicious in-fighting of the last few days does nothing but damage that community and prevent people from wanting to join it. And none of us want that. Do we?