Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Byte: Clueless BBC Videogames Coverage

Now, I understand that it's not exactly what we all pay the licence fee for, but something has to be said about the way BBC Online covers videogames. Principally, it's RUBBISH.

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

Bark: Japanese Culture

If you ever needed convincing that Japanese culture is a bit bonkers (if Lost In Translation didn't do it for you) then this must surely be the closing argument. This, of course, is in response to the boyfriend pillow for women. The people who buy these things don't need comforting, they need a psychiatrist...

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Byte: PlayStation Projectile

One of the funniest things I've seen in a while. Sony's new portable gaming system, the PSP, designed to rival Nintendo's longstanding supremacy in the hand-held market has a slight problem, though presumably only if you're a ham-fisted mutant who can't use a hand-held console without twisting the chassis...

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Bark/Byte: The Videogame Rating Debate

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to annoy the living hell out of me, it's a politician trying to make the bleeding obvious sound like something no-one's ever thought of before.

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

Byte: Grab the boom-stick, white princess!

I'm rather enjoying Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines at the moment. I'm running a couple of concurrent games, one as a Ventrue (the classic Dracula-type vampire) and one as a Malkavian (a vampire who has supernatural insight, at the cost of complete madness), so I'm not particularly far into the game yet (a handful of hours for each character), but everything so far has been pretty interesting and enjoyable - even the tutorial mission at the start.

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

Bark: Bad Dreams

I had a very strange nightmare this morning. I don't often remember my dreams, but this one was more disturbing than most.

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

Byte: Half-Life 2 Deathmatch

Having completed Half-Life 2 within a fortnight of getting it through my letterbox (you don't need me to tell you how good it is, I'm sure you've seen a review by now), I've been playing the newly released HL2:DM to prolong the experience just that little bit longer.

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

Bark: The Simple Pleasures

I didn't want to get out of bed this morning. Not because I was feeling ill, or because the prospect of going to work was too hideous, but because I'd bought a new duvet at the weekend and I was just too warm and comfortable to want to get up and go out into the cold.

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

Byte: Vapourware

There's nothing an IT worker likes more than a project management disaster story. It reassures humble code monkeys like myself that it's not just YOUR manager that's useless. (Actually, at the moment, I'm really lucky in that my manager at the moment is absolutely great. It's just the users who are utterly inept. But that's to be expected... we don't call the "lusers" for nothing.)

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...

Byte: Make Love Not Spam

A tale from the legal twilight of the internet. Internet Service Provider Lycos has produced an anti-spam screensaver that gives the spammers a taste of their own medicine. Well, not *exactly* a taste of their own medicine, since that'd be Viagra, probably, but a kind of anti-Viagra for webservers.

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

Bark: The Infinite Cat Project

I thought it'd be a nice irony to have this blog's first Bark be about cats...

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.

Welcome: "How's half-life with you, Toby?" "Ruff."

Welcome to Bark and Byte. Regrettably, I'm not a robot, nor a dog, or any combination of the two, but the character of Toby (from the 2000AD comic The Ballad Of Halo Jones) says not only a lot about me, but how this blog will evolve.

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.
So welcome, and make yourself at home. Don't be afraid - I don't bite, I only byte...