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!