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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Byte: Plague

This hasn't happened on my WoW server yet (to my knowledge), but it appears that one thing added in the recent patch has had a rather unintended (and spectacularly disasterous) effect. A new raid dungeon has been added, Zul'Gurub. The Boss in this instance has a rather evil debuff effect called Corrupted Blood, which pretty much instantly kills any character below Level 50, and is a tad virulent, spreading to any allies within reach. This has resulted in almost entire servers being wiped out, as some characters have inadvertantly brought the disease back into the game world, rather than just containing it within the instance.

It's a glorious cock-up by Blizzard - I don't think they ever imagined that people would exit the instance whilst infected and spread it to the outside world. A lack of playtesting there, methinks. It must be awesome in a place like Ironforge: if the lag doesn't get you, the dreaded lurgy will! At least some people have seen the funny side...

Byte: Industry insight

A fabulous analysis on Lost Garden of just why the Nintendo Revolution will rock our world and make Nintendo really rather a lot of money.

Byte: Lily-Livered Alcopop-drinking lightweights

My Meteos review is up. Enjoy!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Byte: Life Begins At Level 40

I'm saving the pennies this week. Mainly because I ended up spending £60 on books this weekend - though admittedly, most of it was just on one book. All that money didn't go on books for work, thanksfully. I also picked up yet another Heinlein, a copy of the Iliad (which I've been meaning to reread for years) plus a handful of the 70th Anniversary Pocket Penguins which include the wonderfully titled In Defence of English Cooking by George Orwell, and Design Faults in the Volvo 760 Turbo by Will Self. Just as well that I read at 100 pages an hour, really, because I've got a lot of pages to turn over the next few weeks...

I'm also saving the pennies on World of Warcraft, because my main character is closing in on Level 40, meaning that I need to scrape up the best part of 100GP if I want to buy a mount. Which I do, so I'm going to have to grind leather and try to flog it in the Auction House for my next couple of levels. I really need to do a few more instances, too, but unfortunately an instance will take a couple of hours to do from end to end, which means that I can't really realistically do one on a weeknight and since my weekends seem to be booked up until 2012, I might as well resign myself to gaining levels the hard way. Zenedar's becoming very much a "mature" server these days - the majority of the population seem to be over Level 30, so it's getting that much harder to find parties for questing, since most people seem to be mucking about in the Battlegrounds, which I've been steadfastly avoiding, because the game's combat model isn't really that well-suited to capture the flag. Still, at least that makes it much less likely to be corpse-camped when you're soloing. The new patch, other than temporarily breaking the ship system that shuttles players from continent to continent, seems to have added a few nice things.

My favourite is the Dressing Room: you can Ctrl-click on any equippable item, and you can see how it would appear if you were to have it. This is brilliant for the Auction House in particular, as it'll prevent you from buying a new hat (for example) that doesn't look quite as cool as the one you already have; because that's what's important, isn't it? To hell with the stats. I want to know if my hat colour coordinates with my Glyphed Cloak and Blue Linen Shirt...

Friday, September 16, 2005

Byte: Children of the Revolution

Oh dear. I think I'm turning into a Nintendo fanboy. After all these years of stoic resistance, too. I was pointed in the direction of a teaser video for the next-gen Nintendo console today - the Nintendo Revolution. There's no gameplay video in the teaser, which makes me think that they've just got a bunch of actors to ponce about infront of the camera with sound effects, but I'm willing to give Ninty the benefit of the doubt at this point. Whilst I remain to be convinced about the ergonomics of using a DVD remote format game controller for a long period of time, I can really see the potential here.

It's about bloody time someone shook up the way we interacted with our videogames. The DS's touch-screen (and games that exploit it like Meteos) was the primary factor in my decision to get my hands on one over a PSP. I've maintained for quite some time that developers should be trying to slim down control sets and make games more accessible, and this certainly threatens to do that.

The way that the controller can sense motion and orientation opens up all sorts of possibilities to revolutionise the videogame interface. Imagine a golf game where you use the controller as your club or putter. Imagine a tennis game where the controller represents your racquet (as in the video). Imagine an FPS where you aim with the controller and move with the attached analogue stick. People who struggle with remembering "Press Button X to do Y" are now going to find that they can play games much more intuitively - and that, my friends, is rather exciting. Just making the controller look like a remote control is going to take away the normal boundaries a non-games player would subconsciously have in their head if you handed them a gamepad. It's going to provoke an "I know what this is!", rather than a "What the fuck is this fiendish tool of the Devil?" reaction.

The only downside is the ever-present social death aspect. Just watching the video of people leaping about and waving their arms manically is cringemaking. It might be fun at gaming parties, but you'd certainly want to keep the curtains drawn if you were playing on your own and your front room is overlooked by a crowded street. It makes playing on the EyeToy or a dance mat look normal and well adjusted.

Nintendo: Revolutionising the way you can look like a complete cock in the safety of your own home!

Of course, whether it will be successful or not depends upon the games, and whether Nintendo can reclaim some of the ground lost to Sony and Microsoft. I find it oddly reassuring that Nintendo have stepped away from the specification wars: it makes me hope that they're going to concentrate on the games and try to make them reach as large a potential market as possible. With this announcement today, I think Nintendo have made a large first step towards closing the gap.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Byte: 401st Airborne

I've been playing lots of Nanostray on the DS recently. I've finally started making headway in the Arcade mode, and am currently residing at 401st in the Nanostray World Rankings. Which isn't bad, considering I haven't played a vertically scrolling shooter since Ikari Warriors on the Spectrum (with which I spent more time shooting my brother in the co-op mode than actually trying to get a high score) and that my reflexes have gotten somewhat old and flabby in the intervening 15 years.

I'm really enjoying it a lot, despite the flaws I told you about in an earlier post. I'm also somewhat gratified to see that it's getting a UK release in mid-October, if nothing else so that more people can play it to help the UK raise it's miserly World Ranking of 10th...

I should have a proper review of it knocked off soon for Pro-G. Though expect to see my Meteos review on there first, sometime next week. I've finally gotten to review it since the UK release is in just 8 days. If you haven't bought Meteos yet, then you really should, because it's simply awesome. Plus, it's the only game ever made that I could have possibly made a comparison with a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in the opening paragraph. For this alone, you should buy it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bark: Lay off our Freddie!

There have been a few snickering editorials going round about Andrew Flintoff's post-Ashes all-nighter today. Lay off the guy, I say. Personally, I think he's entitled to get completely trashed after helping win the Ashes. Hell, if I'd been part of the team, I would have too. I hope he takes advantage of his newly awarded Freedom of the City of Preston, and *does* drive a flock of sheep through the town centre, too. It'd be nice to see someone make full use of the right, for once. Freddie's going to have one hell of a headache this morning, but after what happened on Monday, I think he'll have found it was worth it.

Meanwhile, in other news, the fuel protests are the very definition of a damp squib. Not only is there absolutely no blockading of oil refineries at all, it appears that only a few people could actually be bothered to turn out for the protests. The largest protest so far seems to only have a dozen or so people at it. So all those people rushing out to horde fuel in case of a shortage are actually the ones *causing* the problem. As I said yesterday: IDIOTS.

I'm taking no chances and working from home for the next few days to save diesel, because I fully expect the vast majority of people to ignore the messages being put out by the media that there isn't a supply problem and go out and create one by themselves... They were five deep in the tiny little BP garage in the centre of town last night. You would have thought that if people were worried about running out of petrol, they'd be a bit more conservative going down the motorways. No, I'm popping back down the M3 at 50 miles per gallon (averaging about 60-65mph, a good 10mph less than usual) and everyone else is still hammering down the motorway at 80 or 90. The British public deserves the self-imposed misery it keeps heaping upon itself, because they're too stupid to listen to what's actually being said and think rationally, so instead, they keep putting two and two together and making five.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Bark: If all else fails

Speaking of the fuel shortage, a scientist in Germany has come up with an alternative: High grade biodiesel. All you need are common garden weeds, some old tyres and a few dead cats...

Bark: Meltdown

There was a much larger queue than usual when I filled up the car on the way to work this morning, thanks to people panic buying petrol in the face of impending fuel blockades, despite repeated calls by automotive organisations not to panic buy.

Whilst I'm not particularly keen on the high cost of petrol (it cost me £60 to fill up this morning - around £10 more than I was paying at the beginning of the year), I think that the way people are stampeding towards meltdown like we did five years ago is little short of pathetic in the face of the real hardship and human tragedy in Niger. I find it faintly disgusting that the news agencies should prioritise coverage of idiots unnecessarily topping five litres of unleaded into their cars over the genuine horror of the West withholding aid from Africa (or at best, not properly managing its distribution) that's allowing dozens of children to starve to death EVERY DAY.

No, the fuel crisis is *far* more important, because WHITE PEOPLE ARE BEING MILDLY INCONVENIENCED! Last night I watched a report from Niger featuring a young child dying from because his malnutrition had gotten so bad, his lungs had become infected and he couldn't breath anymore. The look of fear, pain and helpless misery in his eyes and face were heart-rending, and I'm not someone overly prone to sentimentality. And yet we stand by doing nothing, whilst we all rush out to fill up our tanks, wailing about how the world is ending because we won't be able to drive anywhere at the end of the week. Kind of puts things in perspective really - not being able to drive versus STARVING TO DEATH. The media needs to get its priorities sorted out, so then maybe we could too. The famine in Niger has been anticipated for months, but has it garnered the same number of column inches as the price of oil? Of course not - and that's the real tragedy: when the luxury of the rich few becomes more important than the basic standard of living for the many poor.

So next time you whinge about the price of petrol, just consider yourself lucky that you're actually in a position to be paying £1 a litre for it - because billions of people in this world aren't.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bark: Bad Light Stopped Play

A hint of farce, as the Australians have gone off for bad light to end the day with the game drawn and the Ashes reclaimed by England. It's a shame that they couldn't have called the game a draw at the end of the England innings and gotten straight on with the end of series presentations. Though I doubt that the cheer that'll go up around the Oval will be any quieter for that when Michael Vaughan lifts up that precious tiny little urn...

Bark: What A Ripper!

What can you say about Shane Warne? I can't believe the ball he just bowled to get rid of Ashley Giles (who did get his 50, I'm pleased to say). Warne clean bowled him behind his legs, though it's not much more than a consolation at this point. And as I type, he's just had Harmison caught at slip for 12 wickets in the match, and 40 in the series. Outstanding bowling. If he hadn't dropped Pieterson earlier in the day, it might have been a very different story.

A short innings break now, and then England get to have some fun with the Australian openers for 10 overs or so.

Bark: 158

Splendid ball from McGrath to finally get rid of Pieterson. At 308-8, the game's beyond Australia now, and there are bound to be a few fireworks now as we get into the England tail, as England are making Australia get them out the hard way - they're not going to declare and stick Australia in. Giles is playing beautifully too, and deserves to hang in there for a 50, assuming Hoggy and Harmison don't get bounced off the wicket.

Well done, England. Bringing the Ashes home for the first time in 18 years. The front pages of the papers tomorrow should be interesting. It's just a shame that now cricket's got such a head of steam behind it with the public that it's going to disappear off terrestrial television onto Sky for the next few years... It could be a long time until we see cricket as good as this on TV again.

Bark: Our Kev

Dear me... Pieterson's just cracked two more huge sixes in a couple of overs, and England have a lead of over 250 now. Surely it's too big an ask for Australia to tie up the series now. Pieterson's even picking Warne off with impugnity - 10 from the over already with a couple of deliveries to go. Even if he strikes out now, he's almost certainly won the match for England. You know it's going to be your day when you've been dropped three times and gone on to make a maiden test century.

You've got to feel that it's just a matter of time, now.

Bark: Tea

Well, England have survived until the tea-break, and Kevin Pieterson has scored a fine century - not a bad time to score your maiden 100 in Test cricket. He really needs to do something about that hair, but I think in the circumstances, most England supporters will forgive him... It should be a corking final session.

Bark: Tension

Oh dear. Things are getting very tense at the Oval. Collingwood's just gone and the England tail now needs to start wagging. If the Aussies can knock over the last four wickets in double quick time, they still stand a chance of saving the Ashes, because there are plenty of overs still to be bowled and not really any chance of the weather interfering today. If England can last out another 20 overs or another couple of hours, they should be fine, but Warne's looking rather dangerous - as usual. I'm not sure I'd like to call this game either way yet.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bark: No, no, no!

Comments have been removed again, due to bastard comment spambots, to whom I give a mighty FUCK YOU. No-one cares about your fucking crappy die-cast lead figurine or cheap viagra websites. I'm not going to waste my time deleting them every time they spam a comment thread, and I'm certainly not going to leave the links up on my blog, so once again I'm blogging in a feedback black hole. Which was kind of how I liked it away, so no great loss, really.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Bark: Thunder

Thank goodness for wireless laptops and handheld consoles. We're having a wonderfully intense thunderstorm here at the moment - just like last Saturday, actually. Lightning is flashing directly overhead, brighter than my lounge light, and thunder's crashing against the windows, so we've turned off the TV and isolated my desktop PC from the power socket. There's less than a one second gap between the lightning and the thunder, so at most it's going off around 300 metres away, and the storm has been rumbling around for about an hour. It's gone very, very black out there, too.

The rain's hammering down as well, though thankfully we live on the top of a hill, so we don't need to worry about the kind of localised flooding that hit London yesterday.

I'm going to get another glass of wine and settle down with a good book. This thunderstorm's probably going to last a lot longer than my Thinkpad's battery...

Bark: Rain Dance

It's been a rain disrupted day at the Oval in the final Ashes test, which will no doubt please the guys running the rather churlish Rain Dance For The Ashes website, because (in theory) every minute spent off the field brings The Ashes a little bit closer to home. It doesn't look although that people have been dancing hard enough, because it looks like this match is going to go to the wire. England don't look like getting the Aussies out at all - they could probably safely bat out the next 2 days, if it weren't for the fact that they needed to bowl England out again - and the weather doesn't look like it's going to intervene much tomorrow or on Monday. It's been a fabulous series, so it'd be a little bit of a shame for the result to be decided by the weather. Oooh. Ponting's just spooned a Flintoff delivery to Strauss in the gulley as I type - only the second wicket of the day. Let's hope this is the start of an Australia batting collapse. (Fat chance of that, methinks)

Another place where it'd be a shame to have rain tomorrow is Spa. The Belgian Grand Prix is my favourite one on the calendar, because it's such a beautiful circuit. The Eau Rouge is the most spectacular corner in Formula One: an uphill left-right-left kink taken absolutely flat out in top gear. It's absolutely heartstopping to drive it in a simulation like Grand Prix 3, the corner comes at you so quickly. Kimi Raikkonen must've nearly had a heart attack when he took so much kerb in the middle of the corner during his qualifying lap, because I'd never seen anyone take so much kerb in Eau Rouge without ending up in the wall on the exit of the corner. That McLaren's *really* glued down to the track. Shame it's such an ugly car, really. It should be a good race tomorrow, provided that it doesn't start wet - a rain shower in the middle of the race could make things interesting, though. My money's still on Alonso for the title, but I'm tipping Montoya for the win tomorrow. He finally seems to be finding his feet in the McLaren, after an uncharacteristically quiet season. Montoya's one of the real characters, and real racers, in Formula One, so it's nice to have him back on form in a really decent car.

Bark: Brown mess

Interesting development in New Orleans today. Michael Brown, the director of FEMA has been sent to Coventry (well, back to Washington, rather) because he's become a liability to the Bush government, thanks to his mishandling of the disaster and his comments that resulted in a public relations disaster, which I reported on at the beginning of the week.

Almost two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, I find it incredible that bodies are still lying in the streets, and that no-one in authority seems to be too concerned that the operation to retrieve the dead has only just begun. I hope that the inquiry into the response to the disaster isn't (if you'll excuse the somewhat tasteless expression) a complete washout. Surely it's about time that governments realised that you need to appoint competent, experienced people who are qualified to take on these kinds of jobs, rather than place all your buddies into lucrative directorships of Federal institutions...

And why did they start giving out $2,000 debit cards to some of the victims, only to withdraw them less than 48 hours later? Honestly. What a mess...

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bark: The advantages of home working

It's been a good day to work from home today. Not only has the weather been fabulous, meaning that I can leave the door of the flat open to get some fresh air, but I also got my new mobile phone delivered today, plus I've also been able to take advantage of the coverage of the final Ashes Test Match on Channel Four, by setting myself up on the settee with the laptop. Ah, the joys of having wireless...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Byte: It's all about the journey

I was taking stock of my characters on World Of Warcraft earlier this week, and came to the realisation that I'm probably not your typical MMORPG player. Discounting my two Horde characters on Sylvanas (whom I've not touched in months), my six Alliance characters on Zenedar have gained a combined 110 character levels between them - give or take a level or two. That's particularly frightening when you consider that this adds up to probably adds up to around 300-400 hours or so of game play. (Yes, I admit it, I've lost track of just *how* long...)

If I'd plugged all those hours into a single character, I probably would have hit Level 60 (the current WoW level cap) by now, but I don't actually feel particularly motivated to reach the top of the level tree. I'd much rather experiment and find out as much as I can about what the game has to offer by mucking around with different professions and discovering the weaknesses and strengths of each particular character class (which makes it so much easier to fight in PvP, coincidentally - since you know what a particular class is more vulnerable to), and so on. I've seen the majority of the game world by now (excepting perhaps the Instanced dungeons), so I don't particularly feel like that I'm missing out by not plugging all my time into only one character.

Having more than one character also has its advantages. Firstly, if you specialise different characters in separate professions, you can very easily make items (such as armour kits, potions, bags, or just pretty shirts) to send to your other characters, saving you the cost of having to buy them from the Auction House. You can also transfer funds from one character to another, grouping resources so that one character never needs to grind linen or silk or something to raise the cash to buy a new weapon or spell. Having more than one character also allows you to get to know more people, as you're never stuck with the same group of people questing in your character level range. It's also handy to use higher level characters to get rare weapons from instances that your other characters can use in the future, without having your low-level characters risk their life and limb trying to get them. Is that cheating? Hmm, well, maybe. It's certainly an exploitation of the game setup, but I'm sure practically everyone does it. Tarithel, my Level 15 Priest, (another character name stolen from Doomdark's Revenge) currently has a linen bag full of Uncommon armour items that she can't use yet, which my two highest level characters (Shareth and Karrina - levels 36 and 28 respectively) have picked up for her. So whilst that takes up a whole load of bag space that otherwise might be usefully utilised holding quest plunder, it does mean that she's not going to be stuck with crap armour when she hits Level 20, or (even better) pay extortionate prices in the Auction House...

I know a couple of people who've hit Level 60 with their characters, and they've lamented to me about how there's not much left they can really do other than PvP and helping out lower-level players in instances, so I'm not sure topping out your character is something I really want to rush. Sure, you need to tick over the levels fairly regularly to feel like you're not stagnating, but (for me at least) the more rewarding part of the game is the social interaction - not the stats, the combat or the eye candy. The journey really is more important than the destination. It's the little things, like spotting Nessie in the lake as you take the Deeprun Tram between Ironforge and Stormwind. Or watching wolves callously savage rabbits in Dun Morough. Or making sure your character is properly colour coordinated by buying them a sexy blue linen shirt from the Auction House. Or just saying "Heya!" to a player you've not seen in a few weeks... I get turned off by players who are just trying to grind their way up to the top, so they can have a petty little power trip over the "lowbies". Fortunately the server I'm on has very little of that - because it's a somewhat cosmopolitan server, there's quite a good community spirit. Things only get slightly nasty when you get big PvP struggles and everyone's using as many provocative emotes as possible. Though even that's more amusing than anything else. It's like being at a Ramones concert, so many people are spitting on each other...

Still, I'm glad that I chose WoW to be my first attempt at an MMORPG, because it's an outstanding game and really pushes all the right buttons, as far as I'm concerned. My journey with it isn't going to be over for a long time yet. That road is still winding steadily off into the distance and over the horizon.

Onward!

Byte: Well that didn't take long...

The first tasteless videogame jokes about Hurricane Katrina have started emerging. Thanks to Mark for the link.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Byte: Jouer des jeuxs

Since I'm not really interested in most of the forthcoming titles available in the next few months (if the demo of Starship Troopers is anything to go by, it's going to be a bit of a damp squib, and - sorry, DAT - the demo of Farenheit puts me off getting the full title solely on the basis of the terrible controls: you can see from the get-go that it's been hamstrung by co-development for the consoles), I've picked up a new hobby. Well, not so much a new hobby, but a new angle on my current one.

Namely, replaying my favourite games, but in *French*. Due to the localisation of some games titles in Europe, you have the option not only to play games in English, but in some cases, in French, German, Spanish, or Italian. Now, my Spanish and Italian aren't much beyond "cerveza" and "birra", but my French is pretty good - good enough to contemplate using videogames to try and help expand my vocabulary, especially since quite a few RPGs and other more wordy titles include helpful subtitles.

At the moment I've got both Baldur's Gate II and Beyond Good And Evil on the go, and it's quite interesting to see (no, *hear*) the differences in the voiceovers. For example, the English Minsc in BGII is more Deranger than Ranger, with a crazily jolly voiceover, and a telling lilt to the voice which makes you acutely aware that Minsc, well, isn't really playing with a full deck. In French, Minsc is almost an Errol Flynn swashbuckler type - which is a curious way to interpret the voiceover when you take a look at the dialogue...
Jaheira, on the other hand, has far less of the standoffish matron about her - the voiceover is that of a much more vibrant (and, dare I say it, sexy) woman. Imoen too is much less of a wet blanket in French than her English counterpart. It's almost like playing a different game in some respects, especially when you're so used to the voices of the characters in English.

I need to stick a few more hours in to get beyond the Prologue (with having to translate the script, choosing dialogue options is by far the hardest part of the game now), so I can see how they've voiced Aerie and Viconia...

I can see that this will continue to be a good ploy to keep me occupied whilst the Summer Games Drought continues, and may even serve to help get my girlfriend interested a little more in gaming - especially if she can do it in her native language.

Maintenant, allons'y!

Bark: The knives come out

I've refrained from blogging about Hurricane Katrina over the last week, primarily because the situation has been a little too confused to get a clear picture of just what's been going on.

A week on, and the aftermath of the disaster is getting increasingly vicious - politically, that is. The Bush administration has been roundly criticised for its slow response and FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been lambasted for the inadequacy and tardiness of its efforts. The reason behind such seeming incompetence? Well, strike a light, it couldn't be because our old friend George cut FEMA's funding, realigned its rebate towards terrorism cleanup operations, and consolidated the agency into the all-powerful Department of Homeland Security, could it?

And what was FEMA's response to such accusations?

Michael Brown [Director of FEMA] also agreed with other public officials that the death toll in the city could reach into the thousands.

"Unfortunately, that's going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings," Brown told CNN.

"I don't make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans," he said.


That's sweet. "You didn't leave, so you're to blame, bitch."
The people how didn't leave didn't *choose* not to leave. They didn't have any choice. These are some of the poorest people in America: they can't afford to run SUVs or even afford a ticket out of town. Not to mention the people who were too old, too frail or too ill to leave.

FEMA can't even get their story straight with the people who are in on the ground. Check out the discrepancies here. They're claiming all's going well, when it's emerging that people have been raped, murdered or even driven to suicide by the slow response.

Can there really be any excuses for taking so long to get the National Guard into New Orleans to provide security? It's not like they didn't know that the hurricane was about to hit the city. Weathermen had predicted it almost a week in advance. Little wonder that the disaster response effort has been labelled "a disgrace" in many quarters. The Bush administration has rolled out Condee Rice to defend against accusations of racism, which whilst not entirely fair, probably still do have an element of truth to them. You can't help thinking that the response would have been a darned sight quicker if Katrina had levelled downtown Miami, or Jeb Bush's house...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Bark: Revamp

Yes, I was bored late on a Friday night, so I've made a few additions to my Blog template. You will note the appearance of links to my favourite websites and the websites of those unfortunate/lucky* enough to rate as being amongst my favourite people. I've also decided to turn you loose on the comments system. Not that I really expect it to be used - but hey, at least you have the option now! Expect the links list to grow as I remember/steal* more URLs as they come to mind...


*delete as appropriate

Byte: Rusty

I can tell I've not played an arcade-style shoot-'em-up game in years. Last night I got my arse emphatically handed back to me on a plate by Nanostray. It took about twenty or thirty attempts to complete a single stage. I don't know whether it's because the game is hard, or because all my twitch-gaming neural pathways have just atrophied to hell. Most likely the latter.

I've managed to conquer the first five stages on the normal difficulty level, which is okay, I suppose, after a few hours play. There are eight stages in total: three "Low resistance" levels (which I've beaten), three "Medium resistance" levels (one of which I've got left to complete) and 2 more levels, which I presume will be labelled "High" or "Heavy" resistance.

I haven't played enough modern shooters to really know how it compares to the best titles in the genre, but my initial impressions so far are positive. Graphically, it's good: there's a real sense of depth to the levels, and you can tell that the objects are properly rendered in 3D, rather than animated sprites. Textures aren't spectacularly good - but are probably as pretty as you can get on the relatively puny CPUs of the DS - and they certainly make the game attractive enough to look at.

There's the odd hint of slowdown when you've got lots of enemies and explosions on the screen, though not to the degree where it becomes even mildly unplayable. The more I play the game, the better I'm getting and the more I like it. Nanostray doesn't have the feel of a truly revolutionary game - not like something like World of Warcraft or Meteos, for example - but it's a compelling and rewarding title. All shoot-'em-ups have that element of compulsion - they appeal to the perfectionist nature inherent in most gamers - and Nanostray is no different. It's not revolutionary, and doesn't really make good use of the DS's touch screen (which is used solely for menu navigation, weapon selection and a mostly redundant "radar" view) but it's a solid title. It's not without a few flaws - which are even recognisable to a player who has not been an avid follower of the genre for a good decade or more.

Firstly, you need to take your hand away from the main controls to change weapon (leaving you momentarily vulnerable) - it would have been nice to be able to use the unbound Y button to cycle through the four available weapons without having to move your thumb away from the main weapons controls.

Secondly, you can destroy enemies that aren't even viewable on the screen. Whilst the playing area is relatively small compared to the size of your ship (it feels smaller than the playing area of most Spectrum top-scrolling shooters - though this may be due to the smaller screen size more than anything), the movement rate of your ship is fast enough to handle most of the enemies, assuming your reflexes and co-ordination are good enough - so this could be categorised as a major flaw. Certainly once you are able to recall the patterns of enemy waves, you could use this foreknowledge to your advantage and this would drastically reduce the difficulty level of the game - but I suppose that's an inherent flaw in the design of nearly all "schmups" - the predictability of the way enemies are introduced. Arguably, it's not even a flaw - the player's desire for "the perfect game" and the intention of replayability is a primary concern in the design of this type of game - but it strikes a player of even with my relative inexposure to the genre as being open to exploitation - being able to progress through repetition and learning, rather than through natural skill.

It's not quite that simple, of course. Even after a dozen or more times playing a particular level, you'll still make those tiny errors of judgement that will prevent you from playing the game without making mistakes. This is what makes the "Challenge" mode of the game so enticing. You'll try again and again to complete Challenge stages with just one ship, or without your secondary "Power" weapons, or completing stages with high "Valor" - i.e. shooting only when necessary, and not using the Attract ability to retrieve power-ups. I haven't tried the Multiplayer yet - I need to wait until my friend Charles gets back from holiday for that. I expect that it's as much of an afterthought as the touch-screen integration.

That's not to say that Nanostray is an unworthy title - I'm certainly pleased to have it in my somewhat sparse DS collection. There certainly aren't many shooters available that have been specifically designed for the DS. Whilst a schmup title with only 8 stages might seem a little miserly (especially given that each stage is only 4 or 5 minutes long), it's the replay value that's important, and in Nanostray, that doesn't seem to be lacking. With the main Adventure mode (playable at three difficulty levels), plus the Challenge and Arcade modes, there is plenty of replayability in the game. Nanostray is also likely to be the best shooter on the DS for some time, too. I'm not aware of any other schmup available or planned for the DS in the near future.

Regrettably, since the game's publisher, Majesco, seems to be having some financial difficulty at the moment; a European release has not been confirmed at this point. If you're interested in a shooter for your DS, an import from the US via Play Asia or eBay is undoubtedly worth your while. Rumour has it that this is a title that's going to be increasingly difficult to pick up as time goes on. Pick it up while you can.