Thursday, March 30, 2006

Byte: Victoly!

I am the Office Lunchtime Mario Kart DS Champion! Three cheers for me!

Bark: Star Wreck

Going where Galaxy Quest feared to tread.

For a low budget movie, the rendering looks pretty darned impressive.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bark: Non-partial headache

I've just given myself a terrible headache by looking at today's partial eclipse of the Sun. It was worth it though. I took a couple of pictures with the phone camera, too. I'll have to see how those came out tonight.

Byte: Neverworking Nights

When the hell did Neverwinter Nights get so buggy? I've been trying to replay it, or rather replay some of the Premium Modules, such as Pirates of the Sword Coast and Kingmaker, over the last couple of nights and I've been frustrated by the game crashing with alarming regularity. I don't remember it ever being this bad before I installed the Premium Modules, so it's either something to do with that, or perhaps the last update of graphics drivers. I'll have to try reinstalling DirectX, too, because I can't be doing with one of my favourite games crashing every hour or two. Annoying.

Though I suppose I shouldn't even be bothering with replaying games I've already completed when I've got things like Resident Evil 4 and the two Metroid Primes just *begging* to be played for the first time on my new Gamecube. I was quite pleased to see on my trip to London at the weekend that the same Gamecube pack I bought in Guildford for £39.99 was selling for £99.99 in the HMV on Oxford Street, so I'm really pleased with the bargain I got. I really ought to use it more. I'm sure I'll hammer it next week once my girlfriend goes back to France for ten days at Easter and I have free reign of the TV and the PC and can switch between the two at will.

I uploaded my GalCiv2 review to Pro-G last night - expect to see it on the site in the next day or two. I've got to try and knock off a Guild Wars: Factions preview soon. I was on the beta event at the weekend, and despite some cataclysmic lag in the communal areas, it looks rather good. The two new character professions, Assassin and Ritualist are pretty interesting, and the newly raised level cap will be sure to please power gamers. I don't want to go into too much detail here (otherwise I'll have nothing left to write for the preview), but I did see something very funny in one of the communal areas: about a dozen Assassins line dancing in one of the public squares, in almost perfect synchronisation. You'll be pleased to know I got a screenshot of it, though I didn't quite catch it at the most dramatic moment, when all the assassins somersaulted at the same time. This shot doesn't quite do it justice. Note the Ritualists dancing in their underwear in the background.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Byte: Revamp

A bit of a corporate plug today: The new site went live on Pro-G today, and blow me if it's not one of the sexiest games websites on the internet. Nice work, Adam!

Which reminds me, I must finish that GalCiv2 review...

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Byte: Freedom and liberty

Specifically, freeing and liberating space in my game storage boxes. As I intimated earlier in the week, my game storage space was approaching critical, so today I took a trip down to PC World in Farnborough, bought the biggest CD carry case I could find, and spent an hour and a half this afternoon indexing my PC games collection into alphabetical order, and chucking out over 100 DVD and CD jewel cases, which are now sitting outside my door in a bulging black plastic bag. I didn't throw out all the cases: I decided to keep ahold of all my Xbox, Gamecube and DS boxes, plus around a dozen selected PC games; i.e. the ones for the games I'm most sentimentally attached to, such as the Baldur's Gate games, Neverwinter Nights, KotOR Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, World of Warcraft and Half-Life 2. I'm glad I decided to go for the biggest CD case I could find, because with all the multi-CD titles I have, I almost filled it entirely - I can barely zip up the case, because the game manuals (which I also kept) bulk the case out so much. I may need to get another one at some point in the near future.

With all that storage space freed up, I'm now free to buy more games without feeling too guilty about it, which is just as well, given that I bought copies of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Resident Evil 4 at the weekend. Plus I have Animal Crossing: Wild World and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney coming for my DS at the end of this week. It's a good job that my 48,000 mile service on the coupé wasn't as expensive as I thought it might be, because the bonus money I thought I was going to spend on that is pretty much gone now, thanks to my games buying spree over the last two weekends. I think I'm going to have to stay away from GAME and the Play website for the next couple of months. It's not like I don't have enough games to keep me busy for the moment, is it?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bark: Work Ethic

Los Angeles bus worker retires, age 100. And he only ever pulled one sick day in all that time.

Incredible.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bark: Revenge is a dish best served cold

And it's de-licious!

South Park has exacted revenge on its former star Isaac Hayes by turning his character Chef into a paedophile and seemingly killing him off.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bark: Roadkill Bingo

Squishity-squish: Six Dead Badgers!

I was working down in Portsmouth today, and during my journey down the A3, it was like a game of bingo, ticking off all the dead animals slumped by the side of the road. Half a dozen badgers, a couple of foxes, a solitary hedgehog and something that may or may not have been a pheasant. The A3 certainly appears to be one of the more wildlife unfriendly roads I've driven on. Still, at least I didn't get hopelessly lost getting there this time, though it took me the best part of three-quarters of an hour to drive the ten miles down from Camberley down the Hog's ass (the A31 Hogsback) to pick up the A3, thanks to some appalling rush hour traffic. Two hours in all to go less than 55 miles. I wasn't impressed. Plus I get to do it all again tomorrow! The joy!

I spent an hour or so of last night playing Metroid Prime, which I'm really enjoying, despite the fact that I got "pwned" mightily by the first Boss. The control system is taking some getting used to - having the aiming plus the movement bound to one stick and using the shoulder buttons to lock onto targets and strafe is novel, to say the least. It's not your common or garden FPS; arguably, it's not an FPS at all, rather a first-person platformer-cum-adventure game. It doesn't have the pace of an adrenalin-coursing FPS, and personally, I'm rather pleased about that, because I've gone off FPS games recently. It's wonderfully atmospheric, and I love the curved look of the interface, as if you're looking directly through the visor. I like entering a new room and scanning the hell out of everything, and though the combat's pretty simplistic, once I get used to the control method, it should still be satisfying stuff. It may take me another couple of attempts to get past that first Boss, but I can see how Metroid Prime is a game you could easily fall in love with. I'm definitely going to have to go back to Guildford on Saturday to try and pick up Prime 2 from HMV, if they have any copies left.

I also played a bit of Rogue Leader, which is considerably harder than I thought it would be - well, the actual Trench Run in the first Death Star mission is pretty tricky, anyway. The clipping's perhaps a little suspect, and needing to switch constantly between the targetting computer and the external view to a) identify targets, and b) avoid flying into things, is pretty irksome, but again, I suppose it's just practice. It's been a long time since I've played anything so arcade-inclined as this. It's Star Wars and pretty drop-dead gorgeous, though, so I can't complain too much.

Now that we're a three console household (well, four, if you count the PC), the amount of space I have to keep my ever-growing collection of games in is getting critical. I'm giving serious consideration to ditching all the DVD boxes for the vast majority of my games, and sticking the disks and manuals in a super-sized CD wallet. Since I'm never going to re-sell any of my games, there's not really that much point keeping the boxes, though I'd probably want to hold onto a few, say for games that have loads of disks, like Baldur's Gate II and Neverwinter Nights, or for games that have the cardboard-slip type boxes, like GTA: Vice City. Plus I'd probably want to keep ahold of the boxes for the Console games (especially the DS) since they're not quite as numerous as my PC games collection, and if I ever did decide to trade in my console games (unlikely, but possible), it'd be pretty hard without the boxes...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Bark: Inside Man

It just occured to me that I told you that I went to the cinema at the weekend, and I failed to tell you what film I saw, which was remiss of me, because it was bloody good.

It was a preview showing of Spike Lee's latest "joint" (as he describes it on the opening credits), Inside Man. I'm not exactly a huge fan of Spike Lee (though I did like Clockers), but the trailer looked interesting, and I like the three priniciple actors, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen, so I thought, "why not?"

It's a very clever heist thriller, with a some really nice twists, great characters and a superb script. A nice mix of violence, intrigue and humour: especially the bit where you've got the armed bank robber giving relationship advice to the hostage negotiator and taking a sly dig at the kid playing gangsta-themed games on his PSPs. "I've got to talk to your dad about this game..."

Well worth seeing once it goes on general release this week.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Byte: The Mother of All Review Policies

The Truth is bright. The Truth is Orange.

Be sure to listen to the Truth Lasers theme while you're there, too.

Byte: New arrivals

I really should know better than to go shopping when I've just been paid my annual bonus. It makes me do irrational things. Yesterday my girlfriend and I went to Guildford to see our fourth film in consecutive weekends (which must surely be some kind of a record), and since we arrive in town just after lunch, I pay my usual visit to HMV.

Naturally, they have a sale on (as they always do) and they're evidently looking to shift the last of their Gamecube stock. They have a Mario Kart Double Dash Special Edition Gamecube there (with the Collector's Edition Zelda disk also included) for the princely sum of £39.99 and copies of Metroid Prime 2 on sale for £9.99. I umm-and-ahh over it for a few minutes. Clearly, I want them. I have disposable cash to spend, and there are quite a few titles on Gamecube I'd be interested in playing. But, I reason, I have Animal Crossing and Phoenix Wright coming at the end of the month on DS. Do I really *NEED* a Gamecube? Then I notice the "60Hz only" logo on the Metroid Prime 2 box. I'm not sure if my TV has a 60Hz mode, as it's the bad combination of quite old and quite cheap. So I put the boxes down and head off to GAME, thinking I'd probably made the right decision not to buy it. Besides, Fleur will go *NUTS* if I buy it without consulting her.

"But it's a bargain..." sticks at the back of my mind.

As I'm walking up the hill, I bump into Fleur. She's spent a fortune on presents to take back to her friends in France, as she's returning home for 10 days at Easter. I tell her about the 'cube, and she puts up surprisingly little resistance, especially when I tell her how small it is. I think she's given up on me ever stopping buying videogames, she's more concerned about whether it'll take up too much space, since it's at a premium in our tiny Surrey shoebox.

With permission granted, I head back to HMV. Thankfully, it's still there. I briefly finger a copy of Prime 2, weighing up the risks. It's only £10, but I really don't know if my TV will run it. Besides, they're hardly flying off the shelves, so I can check out my TV and come back later in the week to pick up a copy, assuming I don't need to buy a new TV first. So I just pick up the 'cube. It is, after all, a bargain, and neither my Scottish or Yorkshire blood can resist a bargain.

A quick stop-off at GAME yields a 64MB memory card and pre-owned copies of Metroid Prime (I have to complete that before I play the sequel anyway) and Rogue Leader for less than £30. So for the price of two new PC games, I have a new console and a hatful of new games. A copy of Resident Evil 4 may have to be bought at some point, but Metroid, Mario Kart, Zelda and Rogue Leader should give me enough to be going on with for the moment. So we're now a three-console family. Who would have thought it?

Iain McC: Jumping on bandwagons four years late since 1998.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Byte: The wonders of Wikipedia

I made an interesting discovery tonight, thanks to Wikipedia.

As long-term readers will know, I'm quite a keen cook. Tonight I made one of my "specials" - a boiled rice recipe with saffron, shallots, sweet red peppers, courgette, mushrooms and peeled prawns. Prawns are one of my favourite foodstuffs on the planet: king prawns especially. I could live off them.

Tonight, my girlfriend asked me what the difference was between a prawn and a shrimp, because in French, they just generally use the term "shrimp" (translated, obviously) for everything from tinned shrimp right up to (but not including) langoustine. Now, quite obviously, shrimp and prawns are from the same genus, but if you go into just about any supermarket in Britain today, "shrimp" are the tiny little crustaceans you get in cans, whilst "prawns" are everything else from peeled prawns to tiger prawns, crevettes and king prawns. So I thought that was all there was to it. Shrimp are the tiny ones, prawns are big ones.

But just to check, I take a look at Wikipedia. Well, blow me if it doesn't turn out that most "prawns" you get in supermarkets are in fact shrimp. The difference is all in the gill structure, apparently.

In fact, the terms have become so interchangeable, it seems that no-one but cetacean scientists can agree on what's a prawn and what's a shrimp. Nothing like clear, concise labelling, eh?

Bark: Hamsters to wear sunglasses on night operations

"My vision is augmented." they squeak, explanatorily.

Nice little nanotech story on BBC News, and a good excuse for a gratuitous Deus Ex reference.

Byte: Urban Work Avoidance

Well, it's taken a good couple of months, but I'm really getting into Urban Dead now. It took me a while to get past the first couple of character levels, plus a few stupid deaths (and revives, thankfully), but I've got a couple of moderately good characters up and running now.

One's a fully autonomous zombie-killing package, with skills in barricading, first aid, free running and Hitting Things Very Hard With Axes, whilst the other is a twitchy ex-cop, who's a dead-eye with pistols, but has to rely on safety in numbers, because he can't barricade buildings on his own.

It's a great little game for taking a bit of break from work, because since it's action point based, and you only regain AP at the rate of one every half-hour, you can't waste all day on it. And the great thing about it being in real-time is that while your character is asleep, you know that somewhere else around the world, someone is rousing their zombie for the day, and they're probably hungry for brains.

Despite the rather steep initial learning curve, I'm getting to like it a lot - it's as become as much a part of my daily work avoidance strategy as Dilbert. Except Urban Dead doesn't have all the hideous pop-up adverts. And I can't think of any higher praise than that.

My two characters (Iain Mack and Iain McC) are currently residing in Kinch Heights and Houldenbank, respectively. Do say "Hi" if you bump into them. But please leave their brains alone...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Bark: Existential Angst

Vincent:
You know I have this..ah...recurring dream. I'm sitting at this big banquet table and all the victims of all the murders I ever worked are sitting at this table and they're staring at me with these black eyeballs. Because they got eight-ball haemmorages, from the head wounds. And their they are, these big balloon people, because I found them two weeks after they've been under the bed. The neighbours reported the smell and there they are, all of them just sitting there.
Neil:
What do they say?
Vincent:
Nothing.
Neil:
No talk?
Vincent:
No...just...they don't have anything to say. See...we just look at
each other. They look at me and that's it, that's the dream.
Neil:
I have one where I'm drowning, and I gotta wake myself up and
start breathing or I'll die in my sleep.
Vincent:
You know what that's about?
Neil:
Yeah. Having enough time.
Vincent:
Enough time...to do what you wanna do?
Neil:
That's right.
Vincent:
You doing it now?
Neil:
Nah, not yet.


I *really* need to change projects at work...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bark: Fuckwittery of the highest order

My girlfriend and I are driving home from the cinema in Guildford, after watching our third brilliant film in the space of three weeks, and we're going out of town to pick up the Hogsback, when two girls in a Toyota (neither of whom looked over 15) decide that they want to turn right out of a side road, which would be fair enough, if there wasn't a pavement between the carriageways to prevent you from doing exactly that... I see what's about to happen, before they even pull out (The Tiger Effect?), and give them a long blast on the horn as they go barrelling over the central reservation, bouncing to a stop on the pavement. Sometimes I just can't believe the stupidity of some people.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Byte: Damn you, Oskar, now I need to learn Swedish...

Two things today: firstly, Issue Zero of Truth Lasers is out and ready for download.

There are about 40 pieces across 27 pages of awesomeness, about a quarter of which are in English. I'm afraid that you'll just have to learn Swedish to understand the rest, but it's got to be worth it, if only to understand what connection there could possibly be between Tetris and Chuck Norris...

I seem to be the token Brit on the writer team (for this issue at least) and I have two pieces in there, but the two stand-outs for me are Oskar's Gameland Security piece and Mattias Wilkstrom's Outro, which must surely be a rival for any of PC Gamer's "It's All Over" back pages of recent years.

There's a possibility that for future issues Truth-Lasers will either go fully English (translated) or completely the other way and go pan-European, with people from places like France, Germany, Italy, etc, writing pieces in their own native language, too. I'll be bunging the link to a German friend I made on my trip to Milan, to see if he'd be interested in contributing, and if I can persuade my girlfriend to help me with the translation, you may even see a piece from me in French. Which would be different, to say the least.

The second must-see link for the day (care of Mark) is something you may have seen already, but if you haven't, make with the clicky-clicky. It's a gameplay video from 2005's Game Developer's Conference of Will Wright's new game, Spore, which will be coming out sometime later this year, probably. It's a half-hour long video, but it you have to watch it the whole way to the end. The sheer ambition and scope of the game warms my cockles in the best possible way. My prediction: Spore will be bigger than The Sims.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Byte: Don't mention the war!

I'm guessing that I'm not a very popular person with Activision's PR department this morning. And after Tom had to practically beg them to get a review copy, too. Whooops.

Iain McC: Saying things most people really want to, but are too scared to, since 1976.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Byte: I find your lack of depth disturbing...

I finished my review of Star Wars: Empire at War last night, and it's no doubt the most vicious assessment I've ever delivered on a Star Wars game. The full review should be going up tomorrow on Pro-G, but, in a break from tradition, I'm going to tell you what I gave it now, just in case my editor ups the final mark a little (though I doubt he will - I believe he trusts my opinion by now): 5/10

My advice: DO NOT BUY THIS GAME.

It's two games of ten year old gameplay (Command & Conquer, plus Command & Conquer In Space), given a Star Wars twist, shiny knobs and linked together with a strategic campaign map so shallow in its execution it doesn't reward strategic thinking (so serves almost no purpose at all). It's an utterly vapid experience, as the game action itself is so lightweight the game is clearly meant to be watched via the cinematic camera and not played. I hated it for being so downright lazy and unambitious, for taking control away from the player so they can munch on the eye candy and the more I played it, the more I hated it. I know I was probably the only person in the world who liked Star Wars: Supremacy, but that shows more ambition and depth than Empire at War, and Supremacy was made in 1998. If that's not an utter condemnation of how far videogames have fallen in standards of originality and innovation over the last ten years, I don't know what is.

I never, ever, in my darkest nightmares, thought that I'd give a Star Wars game 5/10. But I have. I love Star Wars to the point of obsession, but this is just asking to overlook and forgive too much for the sake of a license. LucasArts, if you keep shovelling out crap games, I WILL PUNISH YOU.

The worst thing is that Empire of War is selling like proverbial hot cakes. Just because it's shiny, and because it's a Star Wars license. And it's so desperately average, it makes me want to spit blood. Save your money and go buy a copy of Supremacy from eBay. It's not as shiny or pretty as Empire at War, but it's sure as hell a better strategy game.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Bark: By George!

It's such a shame that they don't show the Oscars on BBC TV anymore. My girlfriend and I are both cinema buffs, and we used to watch it live, even though we'd often both be working the next morning.

Today, however, I've had to catch up with the awards via the internet and radio.

First and foremost, I'm delighted that George Clooney got the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana (which, by a complete non-coincidence, I saw yesterday), because despite being one of the most sickeningly talented, funny and damnedly good looking men on the planet, he's been making some fabulous films recently, and deserves on for simply standing up and rocking the political boat.

Syriana is an excellent film: it reminds me of Heat in the way that it's shot, plus the density of character and plotting. There are around half a dozen similar plot strands winding their way through the film, which all bind together in the last half hour in a shattering conclusion. For moviegoers weaned on Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters, it's undoubtedly very heavy going, and therefore not for everyone, but it's thought-provoking, ambivalent and unsettling stuff; especially the (literally) nail-pulling torture scene. It has a fabulous cast, all on top form, as well.

It's not quite as good a film as the other George Clooney picture out at the moment (Good Night, and Good Luck), though not by much. I saw that last Sunday, and was very surprised to see a woman bringing her three kids (not one older than about 12) to see it with her. I wasn't surprised to see them walk out after less than an hour. I doubt McCarthyism is up very high on tweenies' hot button list.

What makes it a fascinating film, though, is that by watching it, you realise just how little governments have learned over the last fifty years, and how little the news media companies have learned, or are wilfully ignorant of.

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty." - Edward Murrow on questioning the political power of the time.

"[If] this instrument [Television] is good for nothing to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost. This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful." - Edward Murrow on the responsibility of Television News and Television Networks.

Both of these statements can be equally applied to governments and television networks today; particularly the US government and the Murdock press. It's almost as if the last 50 years never happened. It's depressing to think that for all our vaunted technology and sophisticated entertainment media, we're no more politically or philosophically enlightened than we were 50 years ago. It's a must see film, as far as I'm concerned.

Getting back to the Oscars, it's nice to see that a single film didn't sweep all the awards, Titanic-style. Even better, Wallace & Gromit got the nod for Best Animated Film, which is fabulous. I never did get around to seeing Corpse Bride, but W&G is so quintessentially British, it's nice to see it get the award over a "home-grown" Hollywood product.

So, on the whole, I think it was a good ceremony this year, with a more surprises than usual; particularly for Best Film. I was watching some late night BBC News 24 on Friday night, where some US journalists were complaining that the Oscars have somehow "lost touch" with the US cinema going public because none of the highest grossing films were nominated for the highest profile awards... Personally, I don't think that's such a bad thing: having films recognised and publicised that don't necessarily set out to purely entertain, but send a message and get people thinking about the world they live in. Crash will be going on my DVD "to-rent" list, I know that much.

Call me a snob, but to hell with populism; I want more from my entertainment media than "merely wires and lights in a box"...

Friday, March 03, 2006

Byte: Creative frenzy

I've had a manic week or so on the games writing front. In the space of 10 days, I've written two previews, I'm halfway through two separate game reviews, plus I've also written two pieces for Oskar Skog's Truth Lasers, the first issue (innovatively called Issue Zero, rather than the more traditional Issue One, in homage to the late State Magazine) of which should be appearing around the 10th of March. It's a joint Swedish-Anglo project (I say Swedish-Anglo, rather than Anglo-Swedish, as the majority of the pieces aren't going to be written in English - at least, not in their original form), and knowing Oskar, will have a lot of interesting stuff in it. Anglophile supporters of the project include not only myself, but also such UK games journalism luminaries as Kieron Gillen, Richard Cobbett, Jim Rossignol and Ian Shanahan. Please note that I hesitate to compare myself to any of the aforementioned names in anything other than ego size and passion for videogames... Certainly not in terms of writing talent.

Keep an eye on the Truth Lasers site; as Kieron himself says, this is something worth paying attention to.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Byte: Gamepad Grrrr

I'm not having much luck with gamepads at the moment. Last night my 360 pad for Windows just decided to stop working, between reboots of my machine. From working at lunchtime to not working in the evening (simply refusing to be detected by the operating system, no matter which USB port on the machine I used), Microsoft have failed me in the hardware department for the first, and possibly final, fatal time. I'm not buying another one, given that I've only had this pad a month or so, and it's a bit of an indictment of Xbox 360 build quality in general: gamepads should be practically indestructible. I've only used this one for about five or six hours at most.

Trust it to happen at the absolute worst possible time, too. I've just gotten PC preview code of Evolution GT, which I like rather a lot, as you'll see if you click on the link to my PS2 preview (my first piece of games journalism for the PS2, incidentally), and I'm really getting into SimBim's GTR at the moment, as well.

Instead, I've just ordered a Xbox to USB converter cable from DarkPlanets, since I still have two perfectly good Xbox controllers in the house, and I'm not going to waste another £18 on a 360 pad if they only last half a dozen hours. To be honest, this is probably what I should have done in the first place.

*sighs*