Monday, December 19, 2005

Bark: Christmas Jeer

Remember the problem I had with the £1000 electricity bill? Well, on Saturday it came back to bite me on the arse. After replacing the meter, and taking a new set of readings, it appears that those rogue 11602kW/h of electricity AREN'T a mistake after all. After checking back through my last couple of year's worth of bills, it would seem that Southern have been underestimating my electricity usage for about the last year and a half, meaning that I do have to pay the bill. Merry Christmas from Southern Electric!

Given the rather catastrophic effect £1000 suddenly disappearing out of my babk account would have, this morning was spent arranging a slightly more bank manager friendly repayment term. Credit where it's due, they were very helpful, and I'm now the proud owner of yet another long-term direct debit, which will repay the money over two years. From now on I'm going to give them meter reading every time they send me a bill, because there's no way I'm letting this happen to me again. The moral of the story? Make sure you don't ignore utility bills that look suspiciously low, because energy companies can back-bill you for SIX YEARS (as I found out from EnergyWatch).

As you might imagine, that put a dampener on the whole weekend, so I went out and did the only reasonable thing. I bought a copy of Mario Kart DS. Which then spectacularly refused to work with my wi-fi. HURRAH! The auto-config won't detect my network, even when smack next to the router, and even manual set-up doesn't help. Well that was a waste of £30 then, wasn't it? Especially since the closest associate I have who has a Nintendo DS lives in Chichester...

Thankfully, tomorrow I fly off to France for ten days, for what should hopefully be a relaxing holiday. So this will be my last entry this year. See you in the new year, chaps!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bark: Pigeon Street

Yesterday I was working down at our office in Portsmouth (nominally to go to a team meeting, the real reason being to attend our team's Christmas bash) - the first time in five years that I've actually ever made it down to company HQ. Given the journey there, I can see why I've spent so long avoiding it.

Getting to North Harbour (or Pearl Harbour, as one of my ex-managers used to describe it - and after going there, I finally know why) is a bit of a nightmare, to say the least. The reason I hate travelling somewhere new is that the first time you go there, during that last couple of miles, you usually end up getting hopelessly lost, no matter how good a set of directions manage to download, because it's very difficult trying to read directions AND drive at the same time. North Harbour in Portsmouth is a particularly difficult place to find, because it's at the junction of two motorways and a couple of A-roads, all of which intertwine with each other, which makes the place you want to go rather difficult to find when the instructions tell you to avoid taking the M27 and M275, but to get onto the road it's actually on, you have to take an exit signed "M27/M275"...

So it might not be a surprise to find that I got rather horribly lost not once, but a grand total of three times trying all the roads that weren't signed for the M27 or M275. On one of these off-track excursions, I did something in a car I've never done before. I realised pretty quickly that I'd taken a wrong turn, and used a side road to turn around. The road was clear, so I pulled out and was getting back up to cruising speed when a pigeon in the hedge on the opposite side of the road decided that it would be a good time to fly over the road to the other hedge. I see him dip down below the level of my car roof and I think "Oh dear, this isn't going to end well..." because he was far too close for me to even think about taking evasive action.

So this poor avian creature smacks into the windscreen, just above my passenger side windscreen wiper and bounces off (no damage to the car, thankfully), a quick look in the rear view mirror revealing a huge puff of feathers still floating in the air.

My first roadkill! Yay!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Byte: The Next Generation is here...

...and it's too dark. Whoops!

Just when Ubisoft were starting to get away from that Eurotrash Games reputation, too. Ah, well...

Bark: Winter Morning Dilemma

Every morning, at this time of year, we're faced with a simple choice: Cold and Dark (the big bad world) or Warm and Dark (staying in bed). Why the hell do we keep choosing the wrong one?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Byte: Skinflint

I was out in Guildford yesterday, doing some Christmas shopping with my girlfriend, and paid my usual visit to GAME. While I was there, something quite unusual happened: I *didn't* buy anything.

Normally, a visit to GAME is a cast-iron guarantee that I'll pick something out of the Xbox pre-owned bin, or at very least pick up something interesting for the PC on budget, but yesterday, despite spending a good thirty minutes browsing the shelves, I somehow managed to come away empty-handed. And that was *after* my girlfriend told me that I *could* get something if I wanted, because she'd spent £20 on a new jumper and she said it's only fair for me to spend money on myself if she does for her.

It's not like there wasn't anything in store I was interested in. Both Mario Kart and Touch Golf were in stock for the DS, but I simply baulked at the thought of spending £29.99 for a tiny little plastic cartridge. There was also Star Wars: Republic Commando and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe on Xbox for £14.99 each, but I couldn't bring myself to buy one of those, either.

I just couldn't justify the cost to myself; I didn't want them enough to warrant buying any of them. Which is odd, because I don't usually find much trouble justifying a game purchase to myself. Maybe it's because I've got too many things in the pipeline to review before I sod off for Christmas on holiday. Maybe it's because I've just put £330 on my credit card to pay for our flights to Basel and back. Or maybe it's because I've just gotten used to acquiring games for free these days.

Pretty much the only games I've bought this year have been for the DS (which I can't get via Pro-G, because Ninty don't send us anything, the mean gits), a few things for the Xbox from the pre-owned bin and practically nothing at all this year for the PC (at full price, at any rate). Case in point: Just last week I was sent Battlefield 2 and its expansion pack, Special Forces, so that I can review the expansion. Even though BF2 was very well received, it's not something I actually would have spent money on, even though I like the online shooter genre.

I'm getting mean and picky in my old age, and since I get so many games for free now, I've become exceptionally choosy about what I actually spend my money on. Another case in point is Ninja Gaiden, which is now just £15 on the Xbox, and is allegedly one of the console's best titles. At fifteen quid you would have thought it's a certain purchase, but no: the beat-'em-up genre isn't one of my favourites, and it's also reputed to be very, very hard, which is also rather off-putting, since my reflexes aren't what they were ten years ago...

I wonder if this is a problem that may be unique to games reviewers. Since you get so used to playing (invariably good) games for free, it becomes that much harder to want to fork out money on something that's not just a hobby, but a career (or in my case, a second career - albeit one I don't get paid for). I've been toying with the idea of signing up to World Of Warcraft again, though what puts me off that isn't just the monthly expense, but the horrors of patching the game after a couple of month's hiatus, plus the sheer amount of time the bloody thing eats up. I might wait until the expansion pack comes out and take it from there. Other than that, because I've got so much to play in the meantime, I think I'll wait until the post-Christmas sales in January, to see if any of the titles I want come down in price a little more...

We Scots don't have a reputation for being tightfisted for nothing, you know.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Byte: Sven Gollum Eriksson


We wants the World Cup. We wants it! My precioussssss.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Byte: Soft thumbs

Having cracked the magic seven minute barrier on PGR2, I went back to Forza last night after a several month hiatus ("it hates us", more like) and stuck in a few laps around the Nurburgring with a track special Nissan Skyline. Playing a simulation with a gamepad isn't ideal by any means, because your range of movement on the analogue sticks is pretty limited, and if there's anything that Forza requires, it's precision of movement: if you turn the wheels too much into a corner, you invariably find that you just understeer off like a Hillman Imp on wet grass.

This problem really manifests itself on the medium speed corners of the Nordschleife, pretty much regardless of what you drive. After about a lap and a half of this, I realised what I was doing wrong. Whereas you can chuck an arcade racer like PGR2 at the scenery and the deficiencies in the handling model usually let the car come back to you, Forza is far more cruel. You have to treat the cars as if they are real, because that's how they handle. So, I turned off the traction control and relaxed my grip on the joypad a little, remembering what my driving instructor told me all those years ago: don't hold the steering wheel too tight, and be light as a feather on the throttle.

The traction control in Forza, like the stability control, is called a "driver aid", but I've only found it to be a hinderance, as it doesn't prevent torque steer and is of debatable value in preventing power-down oversteer on rear-wheel drive cars, so it doesn't really allow you to get the power down to 100% any quicker than if you didn't have it on. The stability control prevents you from drifting around corners, which is a pain in the arse, because you otherwise have to be super-accurate in getting down to the entry speed of the corner to prevent you spinning off into the boonies. And besides, four-wheel drifting through corners using the throttle to maintain your direction and stability is fun.

After playing about a little with the setup, reducing the brake pressure to prevent lock-ups (or rather, ABS spamming), and slackening off the front anti-rollbar to give me a bit more turn-in oversteer (I like my cars like my women: twitchy and responsive) and just being a little bit more relaxed on the thumbstick and smoother with the throttle, the lap times really started to come together.

The track special Skyline is a beautiful car - not as fast as some of the other S-class track specials (such as the Le Mans GT cars), but it handles beautifully and has lots of power. Despite two bad spins and a few grassy excursions, I still managed a sub ten minute lap, clocking in at 9m 38s (or 8m 50s when you get rid of the time penalties), which was quite pleasing. The whole time penalty thing still really annoys me - and there's not even a cheat or dev code you can use to turn it off - because the time penalties really ruin any sense of satisfaction that you might get from turning in an otherwise good lap, because it's a completely arbitrary penalty that ruins your lap time. There's at least 30 seconds that can come off that, perhaps more. If I had a steering wheel and pedals, taking over a minute off that time would be a distinct possibility, but alas, I'm restricted to pads. But hey, at least it's another psychological barrier broken, and I can get down to really enjoying the game.

Now, if I can get a sub-ten minute lap with a standard D-class road car, that'll be impressive... almost as impressive as the crash I had last night in the Enzo in the super-fast kinks leading down to the first hairpin. I came as close to rolling the car as the physics model allowed me to (perhaps if I upped the damage model to realistic level, the car would have ended up on its back - but I don't know if the crash modelling allows that). I hit the inside kerb of the second kink a little too hard, at something like 215mph, which catapulted me into the air, driving Diamonds Are Forever style on two wheels for about 100 metres, sliding sideways left across the track into the barrier and fencing and coming to a crunching stop before the game reset my car on the middle of the track. If I'd done that in real life, well, let's just say that wouldn't have been a shunt you'd just get up and walk away from... Fun while it lasted, though. Heh.

It just goes to show the difference in car modelling between Forza and PGR2, though. In PGR2, the Enzo is nailed to the floor, super-responsive and has brakes like running full pelt into a brick wall. In Forza, the Enzo is a DOG. The brakes are awful, it turn-in understeers like a bitch and has chronic throttle-oversteer. It's put me off ever dreaming of driving one, let me tell you...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Byte: 6m 57.300s

Well, if those rather disturbing dreams I've been having lately about brain tumours are trying to tell me something, at least I can go to my grave happy that I've ticked off one of the major "must achieve" milestones on my life list.

Yes, last night I cracked the seven minute barrier around the Nurburgring Nordschleife on Project Gotham Racing 2, taking a full six seconds off my previous best. It was still quite a scrappy lap, with several missed apexes and a couple of minor excursions onto the grass, plus I dropped a second or two in the sequence of corners leading up to the mini-Karrussel, because I made the mistake of looking at my split time and eased off after seeing just how quick the lap time was, since I didn't want to stuff it into a barrier in the last quarter of the lap.

I checked my profile stats, and it "only" took me 61 hours and about 2800 miles of game play. I reckon about half of those miles and about a quarter of the time was on the Nurburgring itself, which works out to around something between 100 and 120 laps, which isn't bad, I suppose, given that there are so many corners, and that stuffing up one is guaranteed to take *at least* a second or two off your lap time.

Ironically, the biggest contributing factor for me being able to take so much time off my previous best was paying a visit to Ben Lovejoy's Nordschleife website and looking at his track guide to give me pointers on how to take the corners I most regularly have trouble with. I've been frequenting this website for quite a while now, ever since the infamous Top Gear piece where Jeremy Clarkson took a diesel Jaguar S-class around it in under 10 minutes and Olly (a workmate of mine) and I decided it would be rather cool to thrash around the track in reality.

I'm not entirely sure I'd ever want to do it in my car (I'd probably hire one, because as lovely as my 406 coupé is, with only 136bhp it might be a bit too slow, and I value it far too much to risk tanking it into an armco barrier), and I'd want to be able to lap it consistently in under 10 minutes on Forza Motorsport (i.e. without ever leaving the tarmac) before I'd ever want to consider doing it for real.

So that's my next videogame challenge: beating a 10 minute lap around the Nurburgring on Forza Motorsport. I wonder if that'll take another 100 laps? If so, I'm sure it'll be time well spent...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bark: Deconstruction

I bought a fascinating book this weekend at the Foyles late night store on the South Bank: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. It's a bit of a monster, at somewhere over 700 pages, but could prove invaluable to me as a fledgling writer. It's a mammoth piece of literary criticism and a deconstruction of storytelling technique that shows how all fiction basically follows one (or a combination) of seven basic plots: Overcoming The Monster, The Quest, Voyager And Return, Rags To Riches, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth; it then goes on explain why these plot archetypes recur throughout the entire history of storytelling, from the classical Greek mythologies to modern film.

The book, astoundingly, took THIRTY-FOUR YEARS to write, and it shows. It's clearly a labour of love and impeccably researched. I recommend having a flick through it (at the very least) next time you reach a decent bookstore to see if it takes your fancy.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Byte: Gaming as medicine

This cold snap has really played merry havoc with my immune system over the last couple of weeks. I've been suffering from a lingering cold-cum-flu-type-thing that comes and goes in phases of virulence, giving me a range of symptoms from the odd sniffle or cough to chronic fatigue, splitting headaches and the urge to crawl into a warm, dark hole and not come out until summer.

Working from home so much isn't helping, either, since I'm languishing behind a desk all day and not getting any exercise. The upside of that is that I'm never more than three feet away from a roasting radiator, of course, which has its own benefits. The other nice thing is that I can also use my lunch breaks for something a bit more constructive than surfing the web, namely, gaming my woes away.

I've been hankering after a change of pace after all the strategy of the last few months, so I've been replaying Knights of the Old Republic II. I still think it's probably the most disappointing game I've played this year, but it hasn't quite garnered the crushing familiarity that the original has (after umpteen replays), so I plumped for the sequel instead. It has the right ingredients to be a fantastic game, but the slow start, lightsaber deprivation and the horrible, HORRIBLE final chapter sour the game almost completely. Playing as Dark Side has its moments, though I was quite surprised to see that it's harder to get Dark Side Mastery than Light Side. Well, it took me longer, anyway. In KotOR, it was the other way around - it was much harder to achieve Light Side Mastery than Dark.

I think it's a game that might improve the more you replay it, as long as you skip the end sequence on Malachor, where all the promise and intrigue painstakingly built up throughout the game is thrown out of the window to set up a sequel. The chapters on Nar Shaddaa and Dxun/Onderon are my favourite, as they don't exclusively consist of slaughtering your way through NPCs, and the game does have a few interesting things to say (particularly your relationship with Kreia), but it's all rendered rather futile by the fortune cookie ending.

Still, it took my mind off the flu, as did a couple of late night sessions on Project Gotham Racing 2. I nailed three seconds off my Nurburgring time on the opening section which double kinks off the main straight down to the first hairpin (which is deceptively one of the trickiest parts of the lap to drive flat out), only to throw the time away later in the lap, which was most annoying. So I'm still a couple of seconds off the magic 7 minute barrier, but I'm getting there. I think I've got a feel for the quickest line on just about every corner now (all 73 of them!), it's just a matter of stringing them all together in the same lap, which may actually happen in the next century. I've done over 600 miles in that virtual Enzo Ferrari now, and practically all of it is around the 'ring. Give me another 500 miles, and I might just crack it...

Bark: For Great Justice!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Bark: Virtual Air Guitar

Best. Thing. Ever.

The Virtual Air Guitar project, developed at the Helsinki University of Technology, adds genuine electric guitar sounds to the air guitar.

Using a computer to monitor the hand movements of the 'player', it adds riffs and licks to match frantic mid-air finger work, reports New Scientist.


I wonder if it does the sounds if you smash the air guitar into the amp...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Byte: Death of a hero

--------------------------------------------------------------
DoomRL (v.0.9.8 (WIN-S)) roguelike post-mortem character dump
--------------------------------------------------------------

Iain, level 6 soldier, killed by a hell knight
on level 16 of the Phobos base.
He survived 104599 turns and scored 25803 points.

He killed 389 out of 489 hellspawn. (80%)

He stormed the Chained Court.
He ventured into the Halls of Carnage.
He fought on Hell's Arena.
He witnessed the City of Skulls.

-- Statistics ------------------------------------------------

Health -2/80 Experience 20832/6
ToHit +3 ToDmg Ranged +1 ToDmg Melee +1

-- Traits ----------------------------------------------------

Ironman (Level 3)
Tough as nails (Level 1)
Son of a bitch (Level 1)
Eagle Eye (Level 1)

-- Equipment -------------------------------------------------

[a] [ Armor ] red armor [4/4] (66%)
[b] [ Weapon ] rocket launcher (4d4) [0/1]
[c] [ Boots ] plasteel boots [8/8] (66%)

-- Inventory -------------------------------------------------

[a] green armor [1/1] (77%)
[b] blue armor [2/2] (91%)
[c] chainsaw (4d6)
[d] double shotgun (6d3)x2 [2/2]
[e] chaingun (1d6)x5 [25/50]
[f] plasma rifle (1d8)x8 [0/40]
[g] BFG 9000 (8d8) [0/100]
[h] 10mm ammo (x100)
[i] 10mm ammo (x100)
[j] 10mm ammo (x100)
[k] 10mm ammo (x40)
[l] shotgun shell (x16)
[m] shotgun shell (x50)
[n] rocket (x9)
[o] rocket (x10)
[p] rocket (x10)

-- Kills -----------------------------------------------------

82 former humans
66 former human sergeants
34 former human captains
45 imps
33 demons
52 lost souls
19 cacodemons
4 barons of hell
10 hell knights
5 arachnotrons
6 former human commanders

-- History ---------------------------------------------------

He started his journey on the suface of Phobos.
On level 2 he battled through a maze of rooms.
Afterwards he fought on Hell's Arena.
On level 3 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 4 he found hellish caves.
He then stormed the Chained Court.
On level 5 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 6 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 7 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 8 he found a hellish city.
On level 9 he found a hellish city.
On level 10 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 11 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 12 he battled through a maze of rooms.
He then ventured into the Halls of Carnage.
On level 13 he battled through a maze of rooms.
He then ventured into the Halls of Carnage.
On level 14 he battled through a maze of rooms.
On level 15 he battled through a maze of rooms.
Then he found the City of Skulls.
On level 16 he battled through a maze of rooms.
There finally he was killed by a hell knight.

-- General ---------------------------------------------------

Before him 4 brave souls have ventured into Phobos:
3 of those were killed.
And 1 couldn't handle the stress and commited a stupid suicide.

--------------------------------------------------------------

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bark: No wonder there's a crisis

Physics is in the news today, because there's apparently a severe shortage of Physics teachers, and it might disappear off the curriculum within 10 years. No wonder there's a crisis when venerable establishments like the BBC can't even get stories about Physics right.

"No equation is anywhere near as recognisable as E = mc2" they say. Shame it's WRONG. That's not Einstein's equation. E = mc2 is a gross simplification of the full equation, made for just the purposes of sounding snappy and sexy.

The full equation (which the article alludes to, but does not state) is:

E2 = m2c4 + p2c2 (where 'p' is momentum: the product of mass 'm' and velocity 'v')

For most practical purposes, E = mc2 is a useless equation, because very rarely in Physics do you need to calculate the energy of a stationary object. It's just trundled out at regular intervals to show how brilliant Einstein was, and for a degree educated Physicist like myself, it's annoying, because it's portrayed as being the be-all and end-all of our grasp of Physics, when the equation itself doesn't mean anything - it doesn't give you an accurate picture. It's like using Newtonian Mechanics to describe how electrons orbit the nucleii of atoms. It may give the common or garden ignoramus a picture in their minds eye that they can relate to, but it's not right. That's not the way things are. I would go into the details of how electrons exist in quantum probability shells around the nucleii of atoms, but you'd probably just glaze over at this point and say "Physics is too hard".

That's a myth, too, I'm afraid. I'm about as lazy as they come, and I got a decent degree in it. Physics is a subject of staggering importance in people's day to day lives. You wouldn't have non-stick frying pans without Physics. You wouldn't have aeroplanes, computers, cars, electric lights, mobile phones, televisions, digital watches, cyclone-action hoovers, ballpoint pens, the clockwork radio, contact lenses, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging medical scanners, or just about any major invention from the last 4000 years either, dating right back to the catapult and the Archimedes Screw.

There's something fundamentally wrong with the modern generation of kids, if they all want the latest electronic gadgets, but are too lazy or too stupid to be interested to find out science behind how they came to be invented. Whatever happened to childhood curiousity?

If A-level Physics does disappear from our classrooms, not only would it be a tragedy for UK industry, but on a personal level so many more people won't have an idea of not just how stuff works, but *why* stuff works. Learning how stuff works is important, but it's the understanding of *why* it works that leads to further innovation.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Byte: DoomRL

I was trawling around The Home of the Underdogs, my favourite Abandonware site, when I happened upon this rather wonderful bit of Freeware, DoomRL.

It's a remake of Doom, but as a Rogue-like ASCII based hack-n-slash RPG; hence the name, DoomRL. It may sound like an odd concept, but once you learn all the commands and get to grips with it, you'll love it. DoomRL has the same kind of appeal as hack-n-slash classics like Nethack and ZangbandTK. They're not going to graphically set your world alight, but they're lots of fun if you can see past the archaic interface. A definite cult classic in the making, and only a 1MB zipped download.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Bark: Thanks, but no...

I'd just like to make a public service announcement.

Can everyone please stop sending me credit card "offers". I already have a credit card that has a £6000 credit limit and a far lower rate of interest than the pre-approved Gold and Platinum cards you'd love to get me into even more debt with.

Please think about the number of trees you're needlessly murdering trying to offer me something I don't want. Your corporate greed is slowly killing us all.

Thank you very much.

Byte: You see? It *is* good for something after all...

Slightly overdue, but my Civilization 4 review went up today. I'm really quite proud of the intense naffness of the opening two lines. I think it's funny anyway, so hopefully I'll get away with it.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm gripped by strategy fever at the moment. Other than a brief stab at Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, I haven't played an FPS in months (Operation Flashpoint: Elite doesn't really count). I'm almost relieved to get Civilization 4 out of the way, because that will allow me to concentrate on UFO: Aftershock, which I ordered last week from Play, after the Cenega PR's reticence to send out a review copy, followed by their temerity to pester us for a review... Not that I'm grumbling about spending the money - it's a title worth buying, so it will be nice to doubly aid ALTAR Interactive's bottom line, firstly by buying it myself, and then writing a review which will hopefully convince other people to do the same.

I've not had much time to devote to it so far (since I was polishing off an Advance Wars: Dual Strike review last night), but what I've played, I've liked. Lots. Some of the presentation is a little raw around the edges, but its got the same depth and addictiveness factor of the UFO/X-Com of old. I can see myself playing this far beyond the time I have alloted to write the review in. It's a massive improvement upon UFO: Aftermath, so should garner an even larger cult following. Look out for my definitive verdict in the next couple of weeks.

Also on the gaming menu at the moment is X3: Reunion. I've not played either of its predecessors, despite picking up X2 in late August (I never quite got around to it). The rather colossal install would portend that you're in for a visual treat, and how. It's *gorgeous*. I know this isn't saying much, given the level of competition over the last few years, but X3 is the sexiest space game ever made. Dressed up to the nines at 1280x1024 on my rig, it makes my CPU and graphics card chunter under the strain. Arguably, it's one of the best looking games of the year. Not only that, it's got a game to back it up as well. First impressions so far indicate that this is the game Frontier: First Encounters wanted to be. Definite staying potential. Again, keep your eyes peeled for a review soon.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Bark: One to watch

I don't know if you've seen this yet, but Broken News on BBC2 has been brilliant over the last couple of weeks. It's a fantastic spoof on the 24 Hour News phenomenon. There's a lot of rhetorical and nonsensical dialogue, but the real charm of the program is sheer lunacy of some of the characters: Kevin Day's stockmarket watcher is a real treat, as is the utter hypocrisy of the film critic, plus the concept of an ESN reporter being "embedded" on the International Space Station with NASA.

The beauty of the program is in the details: the absurdist items in the headline tickers, the overly brusque reporters, the anchor switching in the middle of sentences, the "standing up news", and many, many more. It's terribly well observed and very funny.

Bark: Grey Paris

My girlfriend and I had the most wonderful weekend in Paris, which (being November) was less "Gay" (as in the happy, jolly sense) and more "Grey" (as in the weather). Let's just say that it was a bit chilly, and I'm now nursing the early signs of a bad cold, which I will be undoubtedly be trying to beat back with the anti-oxidants packed into a bottle of very fine red wine. As the maitre-d of the restaurant we had lunch in yesterday said, you should drink red wine "pour les vitamins".

We had an unaccustomedly early start on Saturday morning: we were out of bed at 6am and out of the door three-quarters of an hour later, in order to get a train in Woking around 7.20am. This gave us plenty of time to check in a Waterloo, and we were on the Eurostar by 9am. Normally on a Saturday at this time, I'd still be tucked up in bed! The Eurostar itself is fabulous: fast (well, at least on the other side of the Channel), smooth and comfortable - if only all trains were like it! A little under three hours later, and we arrive in Paris, just in time for lunch. A half-kilometre hike, and we're soon dropping off our bags at the hotel, before immediately heading back out, walking from Gare de Nord down to the Eiffel Tower, via Opera and the Place de la Concorde, stopping off for lunch along the way (entrecote frites for me, washed down with a couple of glasses of vin chaud).

Paris is a beautiful city just to go strolling around in. It's got a very different feel to London - a similar kind of energy, but much more relaxed and laid back. The roads and pavements are much broader, so it doesn't feel nearly as crowded, either. So we make it down to the Eiffel Tower around 5.30pm, and it's just starting to get dark. We get in line, and wait the forty minutes or so to get to the ticket office. We eventually take the tower leg elevator (which is surely one of the scariest contraptions in existence - think the scenic elevator in The Towering Inferno, when it's coming off the track) up to the second floor, which is about as high as my vertigo would allow (for the record, 149.23m up) and took in the view of the illuminated city. It was a breathtaking view - if only because of the vertigo panic-attacks... Just kidding. It was awesome, though. We could even watch a football match being played in the stadium just down river to the west of the tower. After that, we walked back to Opera and took the tube the rest of the way to the hotel for an early night.

Another bright and early start on Sunday morning, and we're off to Bercy to see the cinema museum, which, amongst other exhibits, included "Mother"'s skull from Psycho, donated to the museum by Hitchcock himself and one of Greta Garbo's dresses. We stopped off for lunch (lamb chops with Provencal herbs) in Bercy before heading back into town to the Latin Quarter, which is one of the hillier parts of town. After an hour's bracing walk (it was quite windy, but no rain, thankfully), we stop off again to rest our feet and cut the crepe, before heading back to Gare de Nord for our return train.

All in all, a very pleasant weekend, if an exhausting one. The only downer being that I forgot to take my camera. I did pick up a disposable camera in the Duty Free at Waterloo, and took some great pictures from the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, I made a rather large schoolboy error and forgot my Physics when putting my bag into the Left Luggage at Gare de Nord on Sunday morning, leaving the camera in the pocket of my jacket as it went through the X-ray machine with my bag. Oops. You can tell I've gotten so used to digital cameras over the last five years. Ah, well, it just gives me an excuse to go back, I suppose. Nothing quite like going to Paris to score major brownie points with your other half, either. The only problem is that from our anniversaries from now on, I'm going to have to up the ante... New York for our 15th, I think. Something to look forward to, anyway. Only five years to go.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bark: Not a bad way to start the weekend...

This weekend was always going to be special anyway, given that I'm off to Paris with my girlfriend to celebrate our tenth anniversary as a couple, but now I've been given extra cause to celebrate. My professional manager has just rang me up to tell me that I've been given a four grand payrise, effective from my next paycheck, which will bring in an extra couple of hundred quid a month.

You've got to admit, there are worse ways of starting the day...

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Byte: Getting Grumpy

I've been threatening to do this for a while now. The eagle-eyed of you will have noticed a new link at the bottom of my "favourite people" list. It's a link to what I hope will become a collaborative blog that will not only show people the positive side of videogames, but will also go some way to debunking the urban myths about videogames commonly perpetrated within the mainstream media, and address videogames news stories as they happen, with a pro-games/pro-reality spin.

I don't expect to really achieve anything earth-shattering, with this. It's more of a feelgood exercise for gamers - putting out positive messages about videogames, instead of letting them being lumbered with the preposterous burden of being the source of all evil.

A few people I know have expressed a vague interest in being involved with such an enterprise; I hope that you (dear reader) will be able to find the time to contribute as well, as often or as little as you wish. Contact details are on the GOG Blog.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Byte: The Thrawn Identity

I'm watching The Bourne Identity on ITV tonight - which is a far more accomplished film than I expected - and the protagonist's identity crisis has sparked a memory from a little earlier this week: someone called me "Thrawn" on MSN.

I haven't gone by the name of "Thrawn" since, oh, before this blog was born (sorry - couldn't resist that particular reference). It's a very strange thing, being part of an internet community, especially if you assume a "nick" - a name (and/or persona) that you are only on the internet. The internet allows you the luxury of discretionary anonymity, and this can be a very seductive thing. It allows you to be someone different in an online environment to what you'd normally act like in person.

Lord Thrawn of Thrawn, my ex-online self, was a far more abrasive and outrageous version of my real self - spurred on by the knowledge that I'd unlikely meet the people I was treating somewhat less than civilly. I think the problem with being "Lord Thrawn" started occurring when I actually started meeting people in real life whom I'd originally met online. "Lord Thrawn" and me, Iain, gradually started to meld: much in the Leonard Nimoy "I am Spock" sense. The first person I met over the internet and have subsequently come to know in real life (and, indeed, is one of my closest friends) has occasionally identified when I've had "Thrawn moments" during times when I've had him over for curry and a beer, or whatever - and it makes me stand back and think "Is this really me?".

It was even more strange when we'd have forum meet-ups and afterwards people would start calling me "Iain" on the forums: didn't they understand that "Iain" and "Thrawn" were separate people? Evidently not, and as time wore on, the gap between "Iain" and "Thrawn" narrowed until they were essentially indistinguishable - which lead to the whole (terribly regrettable) Mad Iain phase. I'm not a someone overly prone to introspection, but if there's one episode in my life I'd like to erase, it's this one. It was a period where I was singularly uncompromising in my online affairs (mainly because I was using the internet as an escape from a particularly shitty period in my work), and I ended up alienating a lot of people; for which I unreservedly apologise for. I'm not a *complete* idiot: I don't intentionally go out of my way to annoy people - sometimes it just turns out that way...

Over the last year or so, "Lord Thrawn" is a persona that I've increasingly tried to leave behind, but it's hard to disassociate yourself from it completely when it's helped form part of who you are, and how you've come to know people you call friends. I think giving up frequenting internet forums (partly through choice, partly through work pressures, partly through unintentionally managing to alienate the people running the only forums I'd be interested in posting on) has helped restore a lot of the equilibrium.

I'm happy enough, and confident enough, to let whatever I say online stand beside my real name now. I don't feel the compulsion to hide behind an idealised vision of what I'd like myself to be. Grand Admiral Thrawn, in Star Wars lore, is the last of the Emperor's Grand Admirals: an intellectual and strategic genius. It was an identity I assumed (with a Lords of Midnight slant) with the utmost insincerity and conceit. I'm not intellectually shorter than two planks, but I'm hardly Einstein, either. The character of Thrawn simply appealed to my sense of the grandiose, plus I have the wit and articulacy to get away with it, so Thrawn I became. (Barring the blue skin and glowing red eyes - though given my chronic bloodshot, I'm not far off the latter) But as time drew on, the perception of what people saw me as (as opposed to what I actually am) diverged more and more, until things inevitably came to a head, and I had to cut ties - if only to preserve my sanity.

Lord Thrawn ceased to exist in all but my MSN name, and I have to say that I'm happier for it. I don't think it's something that will disappear completely from what makes me what I am: it was far too important a part of my life for far too long for that - plus there are still a few lingering regrets about the way I handled things when I still went by the name of Thrawn. Would State not have gone under had I stuck to my guns and not relinquished control? I guess we'll never know, but there's no sense living in the past. As the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end, even if it's an ignoble one. Besides, the time investment versus the reward of running the place must go down as one of the greatest examples of diminishing returns in history, so maybe putting the forum down was an act of mercy. I don't know...

Ah, well; this is probably the final entry in The Chronicles Of Thrawn. The Annals of Iain, however, will continue for the foreseeable future. If I have anything to say about it, anyway. Here's hoping you'll stay tuned.

Bark: Anniversary

It's the 10th Anniversary of the beginning of my relationship with my girlfriend today. TEN YEARS. That's a staggeringly long time, and all the more incredible when you think that for about half that time we were actually in a long distance relationship, and sometimes didn't see each other for months on end.

A ten year anniversary is obviously a special occasion, so to celebrate it I'm treating her to a weekend in Paris. Right in the middle of the worst rioting and civic disorder in France for the last 40 years. You have to smile at the timing. Still, it should still be very romantic, having dinner by the flickering light of torched cars, and rushing back to the hotel just in time for the curfew...

All we need now are bombs on the Eurostar, but I suppose I shouldn't tempt fate. She's a fickle bitch.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Byte: We're gonna game like it's 2001

Busy time for me at the moment. Not only am I back at work trying to get my Information Warehouse project off the ground, my editor at Pro-G is keeping the games coming thick and fast.

My Nanostray review finally went up this week (since it gets its UK release in the next week or two), plus I've got quite a few other things going up in the next week or so. Over the last week I've mainly been playing the excellent Operation Flashpoint: Elite, and my review of that should go up on the site tomorrow.

I don't want to pre-empt the review too much here, but it rates as one of my favourite titles on Xbox; which should be no real surprise, given that I absolutely adored the PC version. Flashpoint on the PC is still, in my opinion, the definitive version, however. A few too many compromises have been made to sustain the frame rate for my liking. The most damning of these is the narrower field of view, as it leaves you far more vulnerable to being flanked and gives you almost a tunnel-vision effect, when what you need is a greater situational awareness of your environment. Bohemia would have been far better off dropping the fancy lighting effects and motion blurring in favour of giving you superior peripheral vision. The added graphical effects are simply window dressing and can't really disguise the fact that the game's running on a five year old graphics engine. Flashpoint can't (and never did) compare graphically to the latest games, and to be honest, it doesn't need too: it's more about the experience than the eye candy.

The analogue movement and aiming with the pad feel just right. Aiming in particular feels just as unwieldy as trying to use a real rifle, where finesse is more important than speed of movement. Likewise, the addition of vibration support adds to the sense of immersion, especially in vehicles or with the weapon recoil. These additions take the sting out of the dumbed down AI and the sloppy graphics: the old Flashpoint magic is still there, and in spades.

There really isn't any other game like it. If you don't have a PC, or if you found the PC version just too damned hard, check out Flashpoint: Elite, because even though it was released about 3 years too late, it's still one of *the* great videogame titles.

Anyway. I should get back to writing this Civilization 4 review...

Byte: You know you've been playing videogames too much when... Top 10

10) ...the sight of a Lego set makes you break out in a cold sweat.

(Game played too much: Meteos)


9) ...you stick to the shadows when walking down the street.

(Game played too much: Thief)


8) ...you try to powerslide around corners in a front wheel drive car.

(Game played too much: Project Gotham Racing 2)


7) ...you strafe around the corners of corridors.

(Game played too much: Doom)


6) ...you use words like "verily" in polite conversation.

(Game played too much: Baldur's Gate II)


5) ...you go "Huht!" whenever you jump.

(Game played too much: Unreal Tournament)


4) ...you say "Oh no... 4. Is. Down!" whenever someone sits down.

(Game played too much: Operation Flashpoint)


3) ...you go through the entire day without saying a single word.

(Game played too much: Half-Life)


2) ...you hire a cleaning maid, just so that you can try to seduce her.

(Game played too much: The Sims 2)


1) ...before you start conversations, you do J.C. Denton's spastic double-arm karate chop gesture.

(Game played too much: Deus Ex)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Bark: Broken Film

My girlfriend and I went to see Broken Flowers at the cinema last night. I'm a big fan of Bill Murray, but I do wish I'd put my foot down and insisted we see Corpse Bride instead, because it's one of the most insipid films I've seen in quite a while. Fleur liked it, but I was bored senseless.

Literally half the film is spent with the camera close up to Murray's face with him giving his trademark bored, deadpan look. As a character drama, it focusses far too much on Murray's character, who doesn't even want to be doing what he's doing in the film (going on a road trip to visit several old flames to see if he can discover if they're behind an unsigned letter telling him he has a son) - everyone else being reduced to cameo roles. As a road movie, it doesn't go anywhere, as its a journey he doesn't even want to be on, and the ultimate destination is right back where he started. As a comedy, it doesn't work either, because there's very little comedy in the film. Besides, Jim Jarmusch is far too busy giving us shots of the wing mirror of Bill's car, or close-ups of Murray staring whistfully into space.

It's DULL, DULL, DULL. The symbolism in the film is so desperately heavy-handed it's insulting your intelligence on almost every level. Murray's character is called Don Johnston (cue half a dozen "Don Johnson? Really?" jokes) and in the opening scene (where he's unceremoniously dumped by Julie Delpy) he's watching Don Juan on TV. Don Juan. Don Johnston. He's a serial womaniser. Oh, I can't contain myself. I never would have figured that one out in a million years. Even worse, the teenage daughter of Sharon Stone's character (one of Don's old flames) greets him at the door in a dressing gown, walks in front of him stark naked and is called "Lolita". No, I'm struggling to find the reference, too.

The characters are all tiresome and one-dimensional - the film's a complete waste of celluloid; and of Bill Murray. Avoid.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Bark: Training

As you'll have noticed, I've been rather quiet this week. This is because I've been in Reading for most of it on a Lotus Domino training course, and I haven't had time for cavorting around on the internet.

The course itself has been fabulous: the pitched level was absolutely perfect for me, and I've learnt a hell of a lot over the last three days. It also represents the only classroom training course that I've managed to drag (kicking and screaming) out of IBM in the five years that I've been working for them; so a seminal week indeed.

The week didn't start out very auspiciously, despite completing Civilization 4 sometime late on Monday evening. Overnight between Monday and Tuesday, I fell victim (again) to The Mother Of All Stomach Bugs, and consequently spent pretty much the whole day in bed, missing out on a visit to the Official Xbox 360 Magazine in London, which I'd been trying to arrange for weeks. A total waste of a holiday day, as well, which was most unfortunate.

Things didn't get much better first thing on Wednesday morning, as I was still feeling a little groggy, and consequently got lost in Reading's labyrinthine one-way system, got very stressed, and almost exchanged bumpers with some poor chap dropping off his daughter to school, in my haste to make a three-point-turn and get back on the right track. Several minutes worth of profuse and abject apologies later, I made it to the training facility with about three minutes to spare.

As I said, the course itself was brilliant - perfect technical level, a low number of students (so plenty of instructor help) and a very good structure. Unfortunately, my Wednesday went even further downhill when I went to the toilet during the mid-morning "comfort" break and my trouser zip suffered a Janet Jackson-style "costume malfunction". I spent most of the rest of the day with my legs firmly thrust deep beneath my desk, trying to conceal my damaged flies with my shirt tails... Plus I got lost AGAIN going home, thanks to picking the wrong lane again in the absolutely nonsensical one-way system. Not exactly a day to remember.

The rest of the week has been okay, barring the traffic getting in and out of Reading (on Thursday it took 45 minutes to travel the two miles from Reading Station to the junction of the A4 and the A329(M) - I could have walked it quicker!). If I ever do a training course there again, I think I'm going to park up the car at Blackwater or Sandhurst and just take the train. The traffic's almost as bad as Central London and Reading town centre has very little to otherwise redeem it, either.

But the course was great (did I mention that already?) and should really make my life a heck of a lot easier over the next few weeks as I build the Notes front-end for this Information Warehouse that I should be doing next at work. I'm almost looking forward to going back to work on Monday. Almost. In the meantime, I have about half a dozen reviews to write... Civ 4 is the definite pick of this week's releases, by the way. Expect to see my review on Pro-G in the next week or two.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Bark: Crisis averted!

I had a fun lunchtime today, persuading my electricity company that it's not physically possible for a one bedroom flat to run up a £1000 electricity bill, regardless of how cock-eyed a story they concoct about underestimated bills over the last year. Looking at the bill itself and the cover-letter explaining the sudden appearance of eleven thousand kW/h on my bill, the logic just didn't track through. I had to go back two years to find a bill with a daytime energy reading of around 1500 (the initial charge point for this bill), not one year since the last confirmed reading a year ago (which they admitted themselves in the cover letter was closer to 8000).

So, I ring them up (managing to remain cheerfully civil, incredibly) and explain this to them, take a complete set of meter readings, and it appears that there's something wrong with the electricity meter. (No shit, Sherlock!) There are three rates on an electricity meter, daytime energy, nighttime energy and so-called stored energy. It appears that the units that should have been logged to the stored energy rate (at around 2p per kW/h) were in fact being recorded against the daytime energy rate (at 8.25p per kW/h), vastly inflating my bill.

We make an appointment to replace the electricity meter, and they freeze my account until the meter is replaced, I can provide them with a new set of readings and they can revise my bill.

Phew!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Bark: Southern Electric are bastards

I get home from a weekend away, and what do I find on my doormat? My DVD of Revenge of the Sith, and what mysteriously looks like an electricity bill. The first is good, obviously, the second not so good.

I open the latter of the two, and BOOM! ONE THOUSAND AND TWENTY-SIX POUNDS, THIRTY-FOUR PENCE. What. The. Fuck! They've made a processing error in a meter reading, and I'm being charged the difference. 11602 units at 8.25p a time. Great. I think I'm going to be making a few angry phone calls tomorrow morning...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Byte: Expensive habit

I thought I spent too much on videogames... well, my outlay is nothing compared to the $100,000 a player just spent on a virtual space station in the MMORPG Project Entropia.

I haven't quite decided yet whether this is an instance of a rampantly entrepreneurial spirit or simply lunacy. Project Entropia is unlike most MMORPGs in that rather than having a virtual economy, Project Entropia uses real money. In order to get Project Entropia Dollars (the cash used in-game) you need to stump up *real* cash. So all commodities bought in the game are worth money in the real world and can be sold on to other players for a real world profit. Interestingly, there is no fee to get ahold of the game client, nor are there any monthly subscription fees, so I wonder where they make their money...

In fact, I wonder how the game economy manages to work at all. Since the pool of money resident in the game no doubt entirely resides within player community and the amount of cash the 300,000 or so players have pumped into the game, could this be the first example of a videogame pyramid scheme? I'll have to email the developers and see if I can arrange an interview with them to see how they plan on sustaining the game's economy over the long term.

$100,000 dollars is a lot of money to fork out for anything, let alone a virtual space station. Okay, sure, the owner has 1000 apartments on the space station he can now let out, has full hunting and mining taxation rights, plus 100 lease deeds for the space station shopping mall, and so on, but can this really be worth that much money? You've also got to hope that the game server isn't hosted on a flood plain or something. Imagine the litigation if the server suddenly got wiped out, and 300,000 players started hammering the developer's door down because they wanted their money back...

Monday, October 24, 2005

Byte: Year of the Strategy

It's funny how things in the game industry go in cycles. Last year was dominated by First Person Shooters: Halo 2, Far Cry, Doom 3, Half-Life 2. This year, on the other hand, has produced an absolute bumper crop of brilliant strategy games: Civilisation 4, Rome: Barbarian Invasion, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Rebelstar: Tactical Command, Warhammer 40k: Winter Assault and UFO: Aftershock, to name but a few.

Strategy games have fallen out of my favour over the last couple of years. They're generally a bit too time consuming to just be dipped into when the mood takes you. I never thought that I'd see some genuinely good strategy games on a handheld, either, but both Advance Wars and Rebelstar put paid to that idea. They're quite different games, in that Rebelstar is purely tactical and all about the combat, whilst Advance Wars has a strategic edge with the unit production and the importance of terrain, controlling cities, and the like. Both can be picked up and put down relatively easily, since they're mission-based, not spawling epics in the Civilisation mode, where it's that much harder to define discrete sections of play, leading inevitably to ATTIQS (After This Turn I'll Quit Syndrome). It's still easy to get carried away, though, and I almost howled in frustration when I forgot to save mid-mission in Advance Wars and my DS's battery gave out...

Both Rebelstar and Advance Wars are surprisingly sophisticated strategies, so it would be a mistake to dismiss them as "kids' stuff" just because they're on GBA and DS. Rebelstar has some very unforgiving mission objectives and is a real challenge, whilst Advance Wars's AI is really quite evil. The tightly packed maps on both games mean that you need to take great care with your unit deployment and learn the movement ranges of all the enemy units, lest you make a schoolboy error and the AI swoops in for the kill.

They've both rekindled my enthusiasm for the turn-based strategy, which is great, given that UFO: Aftershock is now on the streets (fingers crossed, I'll be getting review code this week) and Civilisation IV is just around the corner. So to hell with shiny corridor shooters like Quake IV and FEAR - Super Strategize Me!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Bark: Zombie worms

Great little story on the BBC science pages today.

A group of UK and Swedish scientists have discovered a species of worm that live on dead whale skeletons. Their scientific genus name is wonderfully descriptive: Osedax mucofloris - or, should you prefer the English translation, "bone-eating snot-flower".



You can kind of see their point, can't you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Byte: Oh, stop. Stop it now. It's just too funny.

The war of words between Penny Arcade and Jack Thompson just stepped up a notch today. Jack faxed the Seattle Chief of Police today, asking him to shut down the site and company for running "a campaign of harassment" against him, going so far to call them a "little extortion factory".

WHAT FUCKING PLANET IS THIS GUY ON?

The language of his letter has so much spin that if it was a Shane Warne delivery it would move 60 inches between the pitch of the ball and the stumps. I think even a neo-conservative version of Alister Campbell would baulk at calling the GTA games "murder simulators". That's a description as biased as it is inaccurate, and undoubtedly the description of someone who's never played the game.

I applaud Gabe and Tycho for taking a stand against him - I was just saying this morning to Dan Gril of Official Xbox 360 Magazine that it's up to gamers to take the moral high ground in the media argument back from these overwhelmingly biased, headline hunting people pursuing an agenda that wants to stamp out free speech in our lives, art and entertainment. Given that "liberty" and "liberal" have the same roots in Latin (from "liberum" - free, independent, unrestricted), I do find it curious that the US media will shout about the former until it's blue in the face, but regard anyone showing signs of being the latter with the same sort of suspicision as your average Islamic Terrorist...

The real reason behind Thompson's complaint to the Seattle Police is an obvious one. He's losing the battle, especially in the worldwide gaming media. I only hope that the Seattle constabulary have the sense to throw out his complaint on its arse and slap him on the wrists for wasting police time. As far as the general gaming community is concerned, his credibility is holed beneath the waterline, but he still has the ear of important people in the US Senate and media. This has to change.

Penny Arcade seem more than willing to pursue this to its inevitable conclusion - a date in court most likely - and kudos to them for standing up against this litigious bully. If someone had labelled my website or company a "little extortion factory", they'd be on the wrong end of a libel or slander action - especially if I'd just donated $10,000 to charity and ran a charity that encouraged gamers to make donations of money and toys to children's hospitals (to the tune of around $500,000 so far).

I mean, that's a criminal racket, isn't it? And giving toys to sick kids sounds *exactly* like the kind of action a dangerously unbalanced gamer who's been playing murder simulators for hundreds of hours would do, doesn't it?

If you're a gamer, and you care about having the freedom to have the videogames you want to play, then we can't just sit by and let smear campaigns against our favourite entertainment industry carried out by self-serving publicity seekers happen. Time to stand up, be counted and get the real facts about gaming out there.

I don't know about you, but I'm writing a letter to the Daily Mail.

Byte: Buy their goddamn t-shirt!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bark: And with that, someone's morning just came to a crunching stop...

Working in the office for the first time in a few weeks, necessitating a trip down the M3 to Hursley. The weather was pretty evil this morning, to paraphrase an infamous weather forecast - the 'f' in fog - and I've hit the motorway about 5 minutes later than I would have ideally liked, so I know that things are going to get hairy around Basingstoke.

True to form, about a mile and a half from the junction, I see that things are beginning to stack up, so I head for the outside lane, where things get sluggish, but usually don't slow down so much that you're crawling. Not today, it would seem - the whole carriageway is grinding to a halt, so I pop on the hazard warning lights to stop people climbing all over my boot as I drop down to a gentle halt.

I see that people are bailing out of the inside lane, so I conclude that there's been an accident while the queuing has started for the Basingstoke junction. A huge lorry is straddling both inside lanes, and as I creep past at 10mph, I see that there are two wrecked cars in front of it. Well, one and a half cars, really. A 4x4 or one of those 7 seater people carriers (something like a Verso, I think - I didn't look at it long enough to be certain) has rear-ended a BMW 3-series at speed, and the front of the Verso's nose is literally about an inch away from the central pillar that delineates the gap between the front and the rear doors. There's just nothing left of the rear end of the Beamer at all - other than the debris strewn all over the carriageway.

I couldn't see any damage on the rear end of the people carrier, so I don't know to what extent the truck was involved; perhaps it was trying to avoid the accident and ended up straddling the two inner lanes. The two cars were lined up front to back almost perfectly as well, so it didn't look like the second car had been shunted into the first one. What scared me was the amount of damage to the BMW - if there was anyone in the rear seats at the time of the accident, they would have been a goner. For that amount of damage to be done, the Verso must have gone into the back of the Beamer with about a 50mph speed difference. Nasty stuff, and if I'd been a minute or two earlier on the M3 than I had been (i.e. when I would have liked to have been), I might have been caught up right in the middle of it. Funny how fate works sometimes.

It looks like there was a fatality in the crash, so this goes down as another close call... And I was mainlining PGR 2 in the time leading up to that little incident too. Perhaps if more people played racing games, they'd have a much better judgment of speed and distance, not follow cars on motorways quite so closely, and things like this wouldn't happen. Virtually all RTA's on motorways can be put down to people not leaving enough of a gap infront of them. Speed isn't necessarily the problem - it's people not leaving themselves enough time to react if someone needs to make a significant change in speed.

When I was making this trip five times a week, I would see incidents like this *almost* happen practically daily; all because people want to cut a minute or two off their journey time. And they still don't learn. It's a shame people need to let statistics catch up with them and have accidents before they realise that bombing up and down Her Majesty's motorways like a maniac, sure in their belief that they've got faster reactions than a fly and better brakes than a Formula One car, isn't really a good idea...

[Edit: Trust the BBC to update their news page and completely contradict what you've written. It would appear that the lorry wasn't such an innocent party in the crash after all, and maybe it did shunt the car after all - it would certainly go a long way towards explaining the extent of the damage if the other car had a lorry's momentum behind it. Though it's incredible that the Verso (or whatever it was) hardly seemed to have much damage to it at all. Just shows the difference in body strength between a people carrier and a normal saloon car. Frightening.]

Byte: De-licious!

You may remember Jack Thompson's offer to pay the favourite charity of Take 2's CEO $10,000 dollars if someone made a game based on his proposal?

Well, Jack made a slight semantic error in his proposal. He doesn't have the depth of knowledge in videogames to realise that not all games are rendered in ultra-violent, realistic 3D. So a few enterprising bedroom coders have taken up the challenge and produced a few text adventures based on his game idea.

http://www.technical-difficulties.com/osaki/

http://walkingfish.com/modestvideogame/

http://home.cwru.edu/%7Etss9/zorkthompson.swf

http://creepyguywas.shijyou.com/goldenrule.html

The first one is the closest to letter of Jack's proposal, as the producers are actually distributing it and selling it (for 50 cents) via their website, and they all definitely qualify as games. The text adventure is one of the oldest, and arguably purest, forms of videogame. I hope Thompson's prepared to put his money where his mouth is and doesn't try and weasel out of donating the money to charity on a technicality. That wouldn't be like a lawyer at all, would it?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Byte: Project Xbox Racing

Since I'm watching the Chinese Grand Prix qualifying at moment, now seems like a fine time to recount how I've been giving my Xbox racing games a bit of a run out last night and this afternoon.

I'm getting increasingly frustrated with Forza Motorsport; mainly due to my heavy-handedness and the inability to be as super-precise with a gamepad as you need to be for the physics and the handling model. I still can't get within three minutes of my best time around the Nurburgring on Forza compared to PGR 2 because of the stupid time penalty system and the way the level of simulation makes it so difficult to lay the power down on the tarmac. Getting the fastest lap times with the slowest cars just makes a complete mockery of the system, really.

So Forza's very much taking the back burner and I'm playing Need For Speed: Underground and Project Gotham Racing 2. NFSU is just a bit of gaming fluff, really, as it has absolutely no damage model at all and the handling model is fairly benign. The real joy is the modding of the cars and ducking in and out of the traffic during the racing. Things only really start getting interesting once you start unlocking all the performance upgrades, but the game's got a very nice structure and maintains a consistent challenge level.

I spent most of the afternoon on PGR2, which, ironically, I'm a whole lot better at now thanks to the increased throttle control playing Forza has helped me develop. I can do nearly all of the Speed Camera challenges on Platinum now (and those I can't I'm only 1mph short of - I'll get there in the end, even without a wheel), and I can do some corking laps around the Nurburgring now, though it's hard to keep your concentration around the whole lap, given that it's 13 miles long, especially if you're driving something like an Enzo Ferrari that's got over 650 horsepower. I reckon I can get the Enzo around there in about 6m30s, if I can keep it on the black stuff. Unfortunately, there are so many corners that it's almost inevitable you'll miss at least one apex or leap a kerb - most annoyingly, usually the fast kinks leading up to the first chicane after the starting straight, or the mini-carousel right at the end of the lap. Brilliant fun though. I think I'll post this now and go do another half a dozen laps...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Byte: Whoops!

Crusading anti-videogames Florida Lawyer Jack Thompson's deranged hyperbolic rhetoric has pissed off the influential National Institute on Media and the Family; so much so that they've gone to great pains to distance themselves from him, even copying in the likes of Hillary Clinton who recently jumped on the Fuck Violent Videogames bandwagon.

Let the backlash begin!

Bark: The Disunited Kingdom of America

World famous budget videogames reviewer, adventure games enthusiast, freelance wordsmith and God Botherer, John Walker, has used the opportunity of a trip to the USA to usurp their wayward political system and install himself as Monarch.

By virtue of simply answering the call on his blog, I have now been granted the Dukedom of Montana, under the name of my lesser known alias, Iain Someone. I do have prior experience in running State affairs, so I have no doubt that I can probably do a better job than most career politicians, and that being in charge of the 4th largest US State should pose no real problems at all. I fully intend to abuse my position by spending most of my time hunting dinosaur fossils in the Montana Badlands, syphoning away State funds into Swiss Bank accounts for my own personal gain, and commissioning the companies of friends of mine to construct a lavish mansion in several thousand hectares of some of the most beautiful countryside the continent of North America has to offer, whilst completely ignoring the trival concerns of my insignificant subjects.

All hail King John!

Bark: Close Encounters

I watched UFOs: The Secret Evidence on Channel Four tonight. It was quite compelling viewing, and nice to have a program looking to give an objective and non-sensationalist view of the UFO phenomenon. It ended up hedging its bets a little at the end, declining to side completely on the very convincing argument that UFOs can be explained by misinformation from the CIA to cover for clandestine aviation projects, and still leaving the door open to an extra-terrestrial explanation - for some cases, at least.

There wasn't too much in the program that I didn't already know, as I was fairly deep into the whole UFO scene in the latter part of the 1990's. There were a couple of interesting things in there, though - the Ion Wind Lifter in particular looks fantastic. In case you don't have a clue what one of those this, take a look at this video. It certainly makes the whole Belgian Triangle incident a whole lot more interesting, anyway.



I don't think that it's a coincidence that the whole UFO phenomenon has died a death in the media and the general public conscience since the advent of The War On Terror. The CIA doesn't exactly need to find fanciful stories to try and scare the public to death and blind them to what they're doing behind the scenes in Black Programmes. Shame, really, because behind all the abduction and cattle mutilation horror stories, the UFO phenomenon's really about mankind's aspirations to reach the stars, and in this day and age, we really need something positive to keep hoping for...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Byte: When will this guy learn to shut up?

You've got to love crusading anti-videogames lawyer Jack Thompson. He's made the generous proposal to donate $10,000 to charity if someone makes a game based on his "cutting" satire of violent videogames.

It won't happen, obviously, because if you read through his proposal, it's utter shite - it wouldn't make a good game, plain and simple, and there's no reason why a game developer or publisher would spend the time and money making the game when all he'd do would be turn around and denounce it as yet another violent influence on American youth. When Gabe from Penny Arcade pointed out that $10k is peanuts compared to the half a million dollars his Child's Play charity (which garners donations from compassionately-minded gamers across the world) has raised for children's hospitals in the US, dear old Jack phoned him up and screamed at him that Gabe would "regret it" if he contacted him again. Such a charming man. Thompson's favourite target, Take 2 (publisher of the GTA series) should just donate a whole load of cash to charity as a good-faith response and make him look like an idiot.

Not that he needs much help in that. Thompson's a laughing stock within the videogames community, but also a living example of how if you misguidely shout completely biased information based on utterly fatuous evidence loudly and incoherently for long enough, eventually the media (and thereby politicians) will sit up and take notice. Sometimes I think that paedophiles and murderers get better press than gamers. I think it's time that we gamers started taking back the mainstream media, before the videogame censorship bandwagon has had too many people leap on it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Bark: Robo-Crazy!

Some nutter in Japan has finally done it - they've created a working, if somewhat rudimentary, BattleMech. You've got to wonder just how much that cost...

Bark: The cool things you discover by accident

I've been having a gmail exchange with someone who responded to my rather scathing Black & White 2 review - quite civilly, surprisingly - whereupon I happen to mention that I gave similar criticism to Vampire Bloodlines for hitting retail when it really shouldn't have.

The all-powerful Google scannerwotsits pick up on the keyword "Vampire" in the text of my email, and produce the following, and rather wonderful, advertising link:

The Vampire Name Generator.

The Great Archives determine you to have gone by the identity:
Zedkiel Vigée-Lebrun

Known in some parts of the world as:
Hermes of Vermin

The Great Archives Record:
Feeds upon the creatures shunned by man.


Awesome. Just call me Zedkiel from now on, okay?

Byte: Rome, Paper, Scissors

My mountain of review code just keeps getting higher and higher. I was very pleasantly surprised on Saturday morning to find a copy of Black & White 2 plop into my letterbox. I've plugged practically all of my free time into it since (hence the lack of activity around here), and if you'll care to click the link, you can see just how enthusiastic my response wasn't...
Oh, Mr Molyneux... can you at least *try* and make a game where your vision doesn't exceed your team's ability? Just once? And for the love of Grud, hire a decent scriptwriter! The review's somewhat of an epic by my recent standards (at a tad over 2000 words), but I enjoyed writing it more than I enjoyed playing the game. It's a shame, because conceptually, Black & White is a killer idea, but when the gameplay's as badly broken it is in B&W 2, it's really hard to find positive things to say.

It's not a terrible game, borderline 6-7 by Pro-G's scoring system (with me erring on the side of a 7 because I'm a graphics whore), but it's essentially the same game (with the same flaws) as the prequel, and that doesn't score a 9/10 four years down the line. The element of surprise and wonder has been lost: it's harder to see past the flaws this time because neither the core game concept, nor the flaws are new. The addition of army-based tactical combat is a good idea, but again, great concept, shame about the execution. I summed it up in the review as being "Rome, Paper, Scissors", because it'd like to be Rome: Total War, but it's so half-baked that you might as well be playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. Bigger Army + Creature = Victoly. Disappointing.

If you're micro-management friendly, you might get a kick out of it, but don't expect anything revolutionarily good.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Bark: Chas and Dave would be horrified

I was most amused to hear on Five Live this morning that the posters for the new Wallace and Gromit film, The Curse of The Were-Rabbit, will be unable to use the word "Rabbit" on the island of Portland, because a local superstition forbids the use of the word rabbit.

Somehow, "The Curse of The Were-Underground Mutton" doesn't quite have the same ring to it...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Byte: Foxy Engine Allows Resell

I tried out the FEAR single player demo last night and guess what? I don't like it.

The 3D engine is great and will probably be resold on by Monolith for several small fortunes, but unfortunately, as the game itself goes, it's Max Payne, the FPS. I'm undoubtably going to annoy Craig Pearson from PCG, but here's a short quote from his review in this month's magazine, where he concludes what to do when being hunted down by a couple of teams of soldiers, which succinctly articulates my problem with it:

So here I am, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea: what do I do? The answer is simple: quicksave.


That set the alarm bells ringing when I read it last week, and when I played the SP demo last night, my fears (no pun intended) were realised. The game is built around the quicksave. Instead of keeping the action flowing, it's broken up into discrete, scripted chunks of 20 or 30 seconds with encounters of just a couple of people at a time, and between each section, like Max Payne, you're encouraged to quicksave because the AI's ruthlessly good. The AI (even on Moderate difficulty) can nail you from 50 yards in complete blackout conditions. I know they're meant to be cloned super-soldiers, but that's a bit much. What is the developer's answer? You guessed it, your "heightened reflexes", which is bullet-time under another name. Personally, I was sick of bullet-time by the time I'd finished playing the Max Payne demo. Four years on, it's still NOT COOL. Fancy that. The game just feels stop-start-stop-start. It doesn't build up any rhythm at all, and because of the AI, it's practically impossible to play from end to end without using the quicksave.

On Medium difficulty, I played Half-Life 2 through without touching the quicksave once. With FEAR, if you try that you'll go mad within hours, because one of the half-dozen or so engagements between checkpoints is cast-iron guaranteed to fuck you over, and you'll be replaying sections again and AGAIN and *AGAIN*. This isn't like Halo where you have a rechargeable shield and can make it through a level with just a single block of health left. Once you start losing armour, you're painfully vulnerable and can be finished off with a single well-placed shot. Given that the AI is so accurate, the likehood of that shot eventually coming your way is 100%. So, your only solution is quicksave: replay each encounter losing as little health and armour as possible. The modern FPS - papering over gameplay cracks using technology!

Another problem is the weapons set. Oh look, the MP5. AGAIN. Oh look, the SPAS-12 shotgun. AGAIN. Oh look, duel-wielded improbably powerful pistols. AGAIN. 10mm Penetrator? What's that? Oh, it's a railgun. AGAIN. Is anyone else ready to start sobbing?

Credit where credit's due, the game engine is outstanding. It gave my Athlon 64 rig trouble at 1024x768, though that might just be because the demo isn't completely performance optimised. The lighting and dynamic shadow effects must rate amongst the best I've seen, and, as I've already alluded to, the AI is excellent: not a Half-Life revolutionary leap, but a step onwards and upwards.

This may be an unfair criticism, based solely on a demo, but again to use Craig P's words in his PCG review:

FEAR never upped the ante. It stayed almost exactly the same from start to finish.


If the demo is representative of the full game, and (by rights) it should be, then I agree with him. Unfortunately, the game's been designed as a sure bet and it doesn't take risks; and it doesn't push any boundaries beyond the running temperature of your GPU. Despite playing the demo for a couple of hours solid last night, I only had *one* standout moment. That's right, just one. A soldier had knocked over a metal rack, and was using it as cover as he crawled forward underneath it. I saw him and lobbed a grenade as he was trapped under the rack: direct hit. The grenade explodes and he's just a red smear on the floor. A smile inducing moment, to be sure, but that was it. The rest simply wasn't enough fun.

I'm filing this one with Doom 3 under "Great engine, shame about the game." I'm sure it'll sell by the warehouseful, but I won't be spending any of my gaming budget on it...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Bark: The Future arrives at last

This is more like it. We may not be striding out on the planitia of Mars or have our lightsabers yet, but someone is finally trying to bring us a little bit of The Future today, by putting our expertise in rocketry to good use: Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Rocket Racing League.

Move over Formula One. And about time too!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Byte: Veni, Vidi, Peachy

My review copy of Rome:Total War Barbarian Invasion arrived this morning. Even though I really rather liked Rome: Total War, Barbarian Invasion isn't really something I probably would have gone out to buy, though I'm certainly more than pleased to add it to my collection. Keep your eyes peeled for a full review in the next couple of weeks.

The keener-eyed of you will have seen the UFO: Aftershock preview that went up on Pro-G last Friday. I was stunned on Saturday evening to find in my staff e-mail some unsolicited feedback, congratulating me on writing a nice piece. As thanks to my new friend Olav for his very kind words, I'm going to pimp his strategy gaming website.

It's been a good weekend in all - we had friends over from Frankfurt to stay with us, so we popped into London on Saturday, where I picked up Thief: Deadly Shadows on Xbrick for £6.99 and a copy of Advance Wars: Dual Strike for DS. I don't really know why, but I think I'm far more likely to play Thief on Xbox than on PC. I never really got on with the first two Thief games - I love the idea of them, but lack the patience to really play them properly. With the 3rd person mode, Deadly Shadows seems more like a console game to me, and the analogue movement speed makes far more sense on a gamepad than on a keyboard. I'm losing out on the aiming accuracy of the mouse and the higher resolution of the PC, but I don't think it matters so much with a game like Thief. I'm betting that the conversion to the console to make the game more accessible will result in me playing this Thief game more than I played the other two put together.

I haven't had much chance to play Advance Wars yet. I've only had a brief flirtation with the War Room and play the first couple of (tutorial) missions of the Campaign. It looks great, though and has quite sophisticated unit modelling - with ammunition, terrain movement restrictions, terrain defence modifications and fuel all being taken into consideration. The script for the somewhat nominal campaign story is quite amusing too. It looks like a lot of fun - and I'll have to try and press-gang my team leader into doing a little multiplayer with me, too. I should be reviewing this sometime in the next few weeks, too, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Finally, I went to the cinema yesterday for the first time in months. I saw A History Of Violence by David Cronenburg, starring Viggo "Aragorn" Mortensen and Ed "Failure is not an option!" Harris. I've never been the greatest fan of Cronenburg's stuff, but this was great. It's a nice length, tightly focussed, is very well shot and has some outstanding performances. Mortensen is great as Tom/Joey, Harris just oozes menace and Ashton Holmes is very impressive as Mortensen's teenage son. It's definitely something you should consider seeing, if you're stuck for something to see.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Byte: Aftershocked

Over the last few days I've been playing the preview code for Cenega's UFO: Aftershock. After a 3GB download from Cenega's FTP server, it was stark staringly obvious that this wasn't a simple preview demo. It was, in fact, a fairly early Alpha build (version 0.2) of the full game, which pleased me greatly.

The code obviously has a lot of rough edges still, with a menagerie of bugs still to be killed and the game crashed more often than Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, but the overall impression it left on me was a good one. I don't want to preempt the preview I've written for Pro-G too much (as it should be up in a couple of days), but it looks like Aftershock is a considerable improvement upon its prequel, UFO: Aftermath.

Firstly, the 3D engine is a whole lot prettier and much more flexible. You can now rotate the camera in every direction, making sure your view is never obscured by the scenery during tactical missions. The interface is also much improved, particularly at the Geosphere strategic map. Economic and Base management from genre progenitor UFO: Enemy Unknown also make a welcome return, returning the game to its historical roots. The Faction diplomacy from UFO: Apocalypse also features, albeit with a hugely slimmed down list of Factions. This is especially important, as you must curry favour with the Factions on Earth before they will allow you to build bases on the Earth's surface (initially, all your operations are carried out from an orbiting "Laputa" space station). Additionally, the higher your standing with a particular faction, the better the people they will offer you as potential troops. Troops can now be properly renamed (à là Enemy Unknown) which inevitably helps you form bonds with your troops, rather than just chucking them into battle like expendible cannon fodder.

The simultaneous turn-based combat from the prequel remains and whilst it takes a bit of getting used to, it's very enjoyable and allows you very effective micro-management of your squad; Which is just as well, given the absolute ruthlessness of the alien AI at the highest difficulty levels.

If ALTAR Interactive manage to kill all the bugs prior to release, then this could be a big hit, because the potential is there for Aftershock to be a true successor to the mantle occupied by UFO: Enemy Unknown for the last 11 years. Keep your eyes on this one.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Byte: Just...one...more...turn!

I'm hearing rumours from my contacts within the videogames journalism sphere about how the upcoming Civilisation IV is really rather good. Just yesterday Tim Edwards (PCG Features Editor) was tapping me up as a potential Civ4 multiplayer partner. In the interests of dear Tim's mental health and to save any damage Civ4 might do to his personal relationships, here I direct him to Civilisation Anonymous. I would likewise urge the partners of any gamer who utter the fateful words "Just one more turn, darling..." to them at 3am, their pale, radiation-bleached faces illumated by the light of their monitors, to seek their help.

Remember: Your recovery is only 12 steps away.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Byte: Resistance is feudal

I suppose the maxim about how all hardcore videogame players are actually frustrated videogame designers must be true. Today I've certainly had one of those "if only I had the time" (not to mention talent) moments. I was paying one of my regular visits to The Home Of The Underdogs this morning, and dug out a link I'd not visited in a while: Icemark - a website dedicated to Mike Singleton's classic The Lords Of Midnight trilogy. Lords of Midnight and Doomdark's Revenge are two of my very favourite games from the Spectrum era (as anyone who has me on their MSN list or has met one of my WoW characters should already know), and after downloading the Windows conversions of these two titles (again), I suddenly had an interesting thought.

The epic scope and reach of LOM and DR are just *begging* to be remade with modern games technology. Not only that, we already have a game that's almost perfectly suited to the job of recreating them - Rome: Total War.

Think of it; the 2D strategic map to recreate the army movement, with the diplomacy engine fully utilised to help you recruit allies and their armies. The world of the Icemark could be fully recreated, with proper terrain, which could affect the battles realistically as you play them out in the real-time 3D battle engine, letting you set up ambushes, or simply allow you position your armies on the most easily defensible position. Imagine being able to control the final battle of Luxor and Doomdark: sieging the Citadel of Ushgarak with the massed armies of the Free and Fey, as Doomdark's Foul hordes swarm around you on the Plains of Despair.

Man, that would be so awesome. Shame I have neither the time, tools, nor the talent to make it a reality. I could write the design document and give artistic direction, but that's about it - the technical stuff like map design and coding custom units would be way beyond me; and since I'm so busy with work lately, I don't have the time nor inclination to learn. Still, if any of you out there fancy doing it, I'd be happy to help out in any meagre way that I can. If you're interested in running with the idea, feel free to reach me at my Lords of Midnight inspired e-mail address: lord_thrawn_of_thrawn[at]hotmail[dot]com, and with any luck, you won't be junked by my spam filter...

Bark: Debunk

Awww. One of my favourite stories from the last few weeks has been debunked. Remember the German chap who (allegedly) said that he ran his car on biodiesel made from dead cats?

Well, it turns out that he's denied that he ever used dead cats in his biodiesel recipe (presumably to get the Animal Rights lobby off his back), though a few chemists questioned by The Reg have at least admitted that turning dead pets into fuel would at least be more energy efficient than simply cremating them.

I can just see the adverts - "Put a tabby in your tank!"

Monday, September 26, 2005

Byte: I got a need, a need for speed!

After a few months of neglect, I've finally started playing on the Xbrick again. As fine a games machine as my PC is, it simply can't cater as well as a console for racing games. I picked up Forza Motorsport on Friday night and thrashed around the Nurburgring Nordschleife for about a dozen laps. I must have done a hundred or more laps around the 'ring on Project Gotham Racing 2, but on Forza I can hardly get near my PGR2 lap times.

The track modelling and the physics are so much better on Forza it really saps away all the confidence I had in the track on Gotham. If you brake into corners and throw yourself at the apexes in Forza like you would in Gotham, you just tank it into the wall - it almost feels like a completely different track, because of how well the camber and grip level of the track has been so better modelled. Even the ABS doesn't help. The only driver aid I use with Forza is the traction control, because the Stability driver aid prevents you from power-sliding, and the ABS doesn't help you reduce braking distances, so what's the point in using it anyway? The traction control is almost essential, because the sensation of power you get as you build up from things like a Mini Cooper S to an Enzo Ferrari is just horrific. Without a TCS you can't even get the power down. In an Enzo I can't get within 2 minutes of my best Gotham time around the 'ring (a fraction over 9 minutes), simply because the car scares the hell out of me on Forza. On Gotham you can just hammer the throttle down and it'll take off like a cat that's been put into a room with three Rottweilers. You just can't do that on Forza. The sheer torque and horsepower will just throw you off the track. To get anything like a competitive lap time out of the Enzo or one of the track specials, I'd need to get a wheel and pedals, because the throttle and steering are just too sensitive and I'm too ham-fisted to get away with using a gamepad. I can actually get a better lap time around the Nordscheife with a Toyota Celica than I can with an Aston Martin DB9, because the handling of the Celica is a bit more gregarious than the Aston's.

Though the difference in lap time is probably more due to my least favourite feature of Forza, more than the physics: When you go off-track, it records the time you spend out in the boonies and adds it to your overall lap time, which just sucks, in my opinion. It's not representative of the time it actually takes you to get around a circuit, and is a needless punishment of the driver - just going off-line is enough of an incentive not to do it in the future, because you'll never make a faster lap time by going off-track than on. The only possible reason I can see for its inclusion is to make people try and stay on track harder - but it's totally superfluous - you should want to do that anyway. I don't want 5 seconds added to my lap time because I had a couple of wheels on the grass, because that's already slowing me down anyway. If they do make a sequel to Forza, that's the first thing I'd recommend they get rid of, because it's cack, and takes away a lot of the fun.

That's the problem with Forza, you see - it's a magnificent achievement in simulation, so why have this totally unrealistic time penalty in there to supplement your lap times whenever you leave the track? Just make the off-track excursions more realistic if you must - don't fudge it with an annoying time penalty system.

As good as Forza is, it's a little bit too technical to be completely enjoyable all of the time, which is why I did a very silly thing and picked up Need For Speed: Underground at the weekend on budget for the Xbrick. I've had it on PC for ages, but I've not been able to play it since I upgraded the PC, because a) it ran too damn fast on my Athlon 64, and b) my PC gamepad decided that it wanted to acquire a right-to-left drift in the steering axis whenever I wanted to play it. It never manifests itself with another game - just this one. Very odd.

NFSU is one of my favourite racers of all time. It's not as realistic or as technical as Forza, and doesn't have the same level of variety as PGR2, but it's got lots of charm, attitude and it's great fun. Diving in and out of traffic during races can be frustrating at times, especially when the game plonks a van on an apex you want to handbrake turn through, but it never annoys you *too* much. The handling on the Xbox seems a little superior to the PC version, and despite a few frame rate problems, looks almost as good. The car modding and pimping is kept pretty simple, but there's plenty of stuff you can play with and you can create some very nice looking cars. To use a somewhat crude analogy, whereas Forza is the Playboy of car porn games, NFSU is Hustler: a bit of a dirty, guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nontheless. Thanks to the analogue triggers, I much prefer playing it with the Xbox pad, even if I temporarily forgot where the gear up button was at the start of a drag race... It should keep me happy when I'm getting fed up with Forza on a Friday night, at any rate.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Byte: Is there nothing Google Earth can't do?

Great story today about how someone discovered the buried ruins of a Roman villa using the satellite imagery on Google Earth. How cool is that?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bark: Television Centre Crime Scene

I'm going to pitch a new TV programme idea to the BBC; Television Centre Crime Scene: An in-depth dramatic reconstruction of the callous murder of the documentary, starring Robert De Niro as Sir David Attenborough and Ralph Fiennes as Greg Dyke.

Why is it that every documentary programme from Horizon to Wildlife on Two has suddenly become a drama, with Hollywood-style DEEP GRAVELLY INTENSE VOICEOVERS TO CONVEY THE GRAVITAS OF THE SITUATION (usually from John Shrapnel)? Two programmes in particular have earned my ire tonight. Animal Crime Scene and Space Race. Animal Crime Scene is especially futile. Why not just tell us about the animals, how they live, how they hunt and so on without trying to wrap a crappy story around it? The documentary film Deep Blue they showed a couple of weeks ago was FAR more interesting. Very little narration, but when it was there, it was useful and informative, not trying to pluck at your emotions to keep you interested. The cinematography did that all by itself.

Likewise, Space Race. The history behind the US and USSR's space programmes is fascinating enough. It doesn't need to be embellished with ropy special effects (there's plenty of actual footage that that doesn't look craptacularly fake and would give a far greater sense of authenticity) and second rate actors reeling off a script that glosses over the real facts in favour of trying to make things seem sensational. I studied Space Science and Technology at university, and after 10 minutes, I felt like I was watching a dramatised version of Rocketry For Dummies. Give me something like Five's Greatest Ever... Machines series any day. No frills, just nice visuals coupled with input from field experts and lots of information you probably didn't know about at the start of the programme.

If I put on a documentary, I don't want to watch a badly written episode of Eastenders with a bunch of scientists as the cast. I also don't want to be patronised that some moderately interesting scientific discovery made five years ago WAS THE MOST DRAMATIC THING EVER. (Horizon is particularly guilty of this lately) I just want to learn things I didn't know before. The BBC's Factual Programmes Unit has completely lost the plot. Stop dumbing down and just give us INFORMATION. I don't object to documentaries being entertaining, or having entertainment shows inform us (I've long been on record as stating that Time Commanders is one of my favourite TV shows ever), but it has to be done in the right way.

Science is interesting in its own right, and a lot of scientists have a lot more charm and personality than the general public would think. Let them tell people what they think they should know in their own way, not have all the interesting stuff they have to say snipped away and put into the mouth of an actor. Scientists are passionate and articulate people. Let them speak. Documentaries *don't need* to be dressed up like a transsexual single parent on the Jerry Springer show. I wish TV executives would get that into their thick, sensationalist skulls.