Friday, June 30, 2006

Bark: Hectic summer

I've just finalised the details of the third trip I'm due to take this summer.

The first is a two-day press jolly to see Relic's new RTS, Company of Heroes. Regular readers will know I'm not much of an RTS fan, but I generally find Relic's efforts tolerable: Dawn of War for example is probably the classic of the genre, and I really like that - despite never really having been a Warhammer enthusiast. What makes this trip essential is not just that it's going to be a really good game, but that THQ are laying on a charter flight in a Douglas DC-3 Dakota (probably the most iconic of transport planes from the World War II era) to take us to Normandy to see it. My brother will be particularly jealous, given that the DC-3 is his favourite plane and that he's one of the most active members of the a very bizarre DC-3 online community that uses MS Flight Simulator to fly real-time "missions" all around the globe, with plug-ins that simulate the weather in real-time. The URL of their website escapes me for the moment, unfortunately... The Dakota is a beautiful plane, though it's mildly worrying that I'm going to be flying in a plane older than my Dad... Still, I'm looking forward to the experience very much. And the game, as well. Expect a full account of the trip and the game this time next month on Pro-G.

My second trip this summer is a ten day trip to Norway for the wedding of our friends Sabine and Kaspar. Kaspar is the chap who introduced me to the joys of Urban Dead, and Sabine is a friend of Fleur's from university. They're getting married on an island in the middle of a Norwegian fjord, which is, well... different! I'm attempting to save the pennies, since Scandanavia is reportedly horrifically expensive. I'll be relieved when it's this time next year and I won't have nearly a quarter of my salary being siphoned out of my account by the car... Oh well, only another 13 monthly payments to go...

My final trip this summer is a bit of a Busman's holiday combined with a proper holiday. We're off to Leipzig at the end of August with some friends of ours' who live in Frankfurt, mainly for me to cover the 2006 Leipzig Games Conference and also to see a bit of the city and have a trip to Dresden. I got my press accrediation confirmed last week, so I'm looking forward to this, in lieu of making it to E3 this year, which never quite panned out, thanks to assorted cashflow and passport issues... The Leipzig GC is reputed to be pretty darned good, and I'm hoping to hook up with Marcus, a friend I made on the Evolution GT press trip I made back in March, who told me he'd probably be going.

So things are nice and busy for me over the next couple of months. Lots of work to do, lots of writing to do, lots of travelling to do, lots of socialising to do...

Just the way I like it...

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Byte: Doom Admin

The advantages and disadvantages of using Doom as a system management tool. Well, it's certainly one way of livening up sysadmin. Though you'd have to guard against people getting a little to enthusiastic when killing processes...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Bark: Flameproof Monk

From BBC News.

Byte: The irony is just sickening

I find it somewhat amusing that the spell checker in MS Word doesn't know how to spell "misspelt". Oh, the irony.

Byte: Skyline

Last night I discovered that going for an evening gym session to work out (and watch the football), immediately followed up by a session on Need For Speed: Underground isn't the best combination to prepare you for a good night's sleep.

The resulting physical tiredness from the workout combined with the mental tiredness from concentrating whilst throwing a Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 at speeds upwards of 150mph around NSFU's streets ended up with me being so wasted and restless that I just couldn't get to sleep at all. It also didn't help that even when I did finally make it into bed, Fleur resolutely hogged all the covers...

Still, the tiredness was worth it after unlocking the Skyline last night. It's easily my favourite car in NFS:U and goes like a rocket, without steering like one. It's a shame I can't do screen captures on my Xbox, because fully pimped out, it looks Teh Bomb as well.

I'd love to get my hands on a real one, but unfortunately, I'd need to win the lottery to afford one. No-one has a spare £40k lying about, do they?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bark: That must be a world record...

I've just been reading a piece on the BBC News website about how one of the oldest tortoises in the world has just died at the grand old age of 175, and I was somewhat bemused when I read this quote from one of the vets.

"She had a very fairly acute heart attack..."

Contradicting yourself in the space of two words. Impressive. Surely it's either "a very acute heart attack" or "a fairly acute heart attack" not "very fairly". In fact, if you're having a heart attack, I fail to see how it can be anything less than "very acute", from your point of view. "Oh, it's just fairly mild one. I'll be fine in ten minutes..."

I'm guessing that dear Dr Hangar has been watching too much football over the course of the World Cup. That's the kind of verbal mangling I'd normally only associate with footballers.

With examples like this, it's little wonder that my girlfriend spends more time in her lessons teaching Surrey's children more about English grammar than French...

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bark: Mobile Moan

My mobile phone decided it was simply going to stop working at the weekend. I turned it off to save the battery, and now it simply refuses to turn itself back on again. RUBBISH.

Equally rubbish is 3's customer service. Not only can I not cancel the contract giving 30 days notice, I can't even tell them now to cancel the contract for when the 12 months runs out in September. No, you can only tell them 30 days in advance. Meaning that I have to call them back again in August to do it, and spend another lifetime waiting on hold and navigating their horrendous automated service menu. At least I had them move me down to a lower price plan, so at least it's not haemorraging so much money from my account, and arranged for the phone to be picked up for repair.

So if you've been trying to text me over the past few days (it *could* happen!!), rest assured I'm not being rude, my phone is just being crap.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Byte: Kvatch out, it's Oblivion!

I suppose it was inevitable that I should pick up Oblivion at some point, and I finally did at the weekend. Whilst I remain to be convinced about the first-person melee combat, the sneaky-bow-snipey stuff is great. I'm playing as a Dark Elf Assassin: the Dark Elf part for the fire resistance and the Assassin part for the sneaking, bow-snipeying and lock-tinkering.

I love the design, though the actual people themselves look a little like they've been made out of plastic. There's just something a tad awry about the way their skin looks, especially the orcs and goblins. The reptillian Argonians look rather cool, though. Even Fleur was taken aback by just how beautiful the game world is. Some of the countryside vistas you could frame and put on the wall.

Not much to report so far, as I've not really played that much, though Patrick Stewart must have the smallest credited role in a videogame to date. I was quite surprised that they killed him off that quickly. I also seem to have found an interesting bug with some of the AI. Not all of the mobs (such as bandits and bears) can climb, meaning that you can simply leap on top of a boulder and perforate them with arrows with impugnity. A trick worth remembering in the future, I feel.

My favourite bit so far has been on dungeon crawls, sneaking through tunnel with my bow drawn, and using sneak attacks in caves to draw out the enemies, getting them to set off the tripwired traps as they pursue me. Well, there's no sense in risking my own neck springing the trap, is there?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bark: Oh, the indignity!

Just popped out to pick up a copy of Games TM, and was pleased to see that barring a few punctuation tweaks, (debatably unnecessary ones, I might add, in my somewhat less than humble opinion, but hey, I don't edit the magazine...) my two reviews have been largely untouched. It's quite a surreal feeling to see something I've written on the shelves in a magazine that will be bought by upwards of twenty thousand people. Not that I'm complaining, you understand. I'm thrilled. I'm especially pleased that they left in my "Kick Cuirass" pun for one of the straplines in the HOMMV review. That may very well go down as my finest moment as a games writer. Even my girlfriend thought it was funny.

So, with the prose making it into the magazine almost wholly intact, I suppose it was inevitable that they should misspell one of my names in the contributors list. It's a constant bewilderment to me, the amount of people who still write "Ian" to me, when all my email correspondance clearly states "Iain". Do they think I've got *my own name* wrong? After, oh, THIRTY YEARS you'd hope that I'd be able to get it right by now...

For future reference, "Iain" is the Gaelic word for "John", and "Ian" is the Anglicised BASTARDISATION of it. "Iain" is the original "Ian" and clearly the BEST. Iain Lee is simply the exception that proves the rule, m'kay? So get it right in future, or else.

*waits for the inevitable myriad of comments filled with creative misspellings*

Bark: Darth Barkley


Cheers to Rob for the link.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Bark: Question of the day

Is it possible to take a flattering photo for your passport?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Byte: A gentle reminder

You want to buy this on Thursday.

Yes, you do. Well, I do. If only to see what edits they made to the original prose of my reviews...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Byte: Adventures with Alyx

Valve are such teases. I polished off Half-Life 2: Episode One last night (from start to finish) in a little over four and a half hours. I would have done it quicker, but the game had a sound glitch and literally killed my soundcard. Doesn't matter what I do with the drivers, I can't get sound out of it. Not even a squeak. Windows, of course, says it's working perfectly, and not even reinstalling it from scratch helps. So it's just as well that I invested in a pair of Sennheiser PC155s a couple of years ago (the ill-gotten gains from the Devil's Advocate I did for PCG, which - ironically - appeared opposite an advert for the very same product). They have a USB interface on them that acts like a soundcard, and I can't tell the difference between the sound quality from my Audigy LS and the PC155s, so... whatever. Saves me from forking out on a new soundcard, anyway.

At least it didn't ruin my enjoyment too much. HL2:E1 has a lot of nice moments. Quite a few annoying ones too, but that was mainly due to a lack of caution on my part, not noticing the Metrocop on a gun turret, or the mines hidden behind barrels, etc. Whilst short, it's certainly sweet, with plenty of changes of pace and lots of emotional weight, particularly from Alyx. There are a couple of really nice set pieces, too. The obligatory gunship and strider duels are pretty intense, with a couple of "You've gotta be kidding me!" moments.

If you liked Alyx in Half-Life 2, prepare to fall in love all over again. Now that you spend almost the entirety of the game with her, you really get more of an insight into her character. The reason I like her is because unlike most women in videogames, she's not just there as a love interest or as a token feminist. She's got real depth of character, and is an amazing woman. I'm not just talking about her physical attractiveness. Of course, that's a part of it, but whilst she's brave and psychologically tough, Alyx isn't immune to what's going on around her. She's emotionally vulnerable, too: she's affected and driven by the human cost of the tragedy caused by the Combine's occupation of Earth. When Alyx has a rather disturbing encounter with a Stalker quite early in the game, she just doesn't shrug it off instantly - it takes her a few moments to catch her breath and regain her composure. And that's what makes Alyx (and the game) so special. It recognises that game heroes aren't supermen. They're ordinary people plunged into extraordinary circumstances, where simple survival is an achievement. They have to do extraordinary things, because they don't have the choice anymore.

The only criticism I'd make of Episode 1 is of the ending. It pulls far too similar a trick to the ending of Half-Life 2, and seems a little mistimed. Given that you've played through the entire episode trying to escape from the city and the explosion of the citadel's core, ending the game without letting you know whether you've succeeded or not seems a little perverse. Of course, we know that we've survived the explosion, otherwise they'd be no Episode 2. So why not find a better place to end the narrative, at least giving the player the satisfaction of feeling that they've achieved something, such as reaching one of the Resistance's safe areas and meeting up again with Barney, Eli and Dr Kleiner?

I'm sure that the reasons behind it will become clear when we get our hands on Episode 2, but for the moment, I'm left a little unsatisfied, or unsated, rather than disappointed. I've replayed a little of it with the developer's commentary on, and it's pretty interesting stuff, especially the design tricks they use to draw the player's eye to cool stuff going on. I recommend you leave the commentary off until you've completed the episode once, however. It doesn't change the experience that much, but it does get in the way of Alyx's commentary, which is far more important, in terms of enjoying the game as a playing experience.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Byte: Another bandwagon arrives four years late

Now that most of my current reviewing duties are out of the way (at least for the moment) I can actually take a little time to do some gaming for pleasure (as opposed to gaming for reviewing purposes). Firstly though, an apology.

Abject apologies to Zinar and Fearx, who're probably wondering where the hell I've got to. My World of Warcraft subscription expired right in the middle of the period when I was writing the reviews for Games TM and I haven't re-subbed yet. Nor am I likely to until The Burning Crusade comes out. Over the summer I'm going to be spending quite a lot of time away from home, so re-subbing would just be a waste of money - a commodity I can little afford to waste at the moment.

So with WoW on the back-burner for the immediately foreseeable future, I'm taking the opportunity to plug some time into other games. I've been replaying Grand Theft Auto: Vice City quite a bit (purely for the soundtrack), plus I've got Half-Life 2: Episode One to play. I did think about getting Oblivion, but I thought that since you can pick it up so cheaply these days, I should at least check out its predecessor, Morrowind, first. Then if I like that enough, I know I'm not going to be wasting upwards of £30 on Oblivion. Besides, Zinar has been telling me for over a year that I should try Morrowind. And who am I to argue with a fellow Night Elf Druid?

I picked up the Game of the Year Edition a couple of weeks ago, but true to form, have only just gotten around to installing it. First impressions are okay; it has an interesting method of character creation, at least. By modern standards it's not the prettiest game in the world, but at least there's plenty to do. Whether or not I'll have the time to do any of it is something else entirely, however. Priorities and all that.

Come on, Working Day. Piss off, so I can get back to playing with Alyx...

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bark: Urban Parrots

I tell you, there are some incontinent birds in St. Margrets. I (rather unwisely) left my car under a tree just off The Avenue leading to Richmond, and by the time I got back about six hours later, it was literally covered in guano. And the strangest thing of all, is that the majority of it is probably parrot shit.

I took my parents to Kew Gardens at the beginning of May, and as we were walking along the Thames by Old Deer Park, my girlfriend stopped me and said she thought she'd seen a parrot, but must have been hallucinating, or something. Vaguely remembering something I'd seen on a random Bill Oddie program, I told her she wasn't hallucinating, and that there was a whole colony of them in the area. Fleur wasn't the only person surprised to see them. A woman and her husband were cycling the other way down the towpath, and as they passed us, the woman saw that we were looking at about half a dozen of them lined up on the bough of a branch, and exclaimed very loudly "I TOLD YOU it was a fucking parrot!"

Parrots weren't the only wildlife we saw yesterday as we had a walk in Richmond Park: we also got to within about 15 feet of a couple of baby fallow deer, which were literally only about a week old.

The primary reason for going to Richmond, however, was to see an old friend, have a burger, a beer and a good catch-up. These were no ordinary burgers, though. Richmond plays host to a branch of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, which sells the most outrageous beef burgers known to mankind. Elvis would have loved them. The kiwiburger is especially good - a top quality beefburger with salad, relish, cheese, beetroot, pineapple and (as if all that wasn't enough) a fried egg... My arteries are hardening just from the memory of eating one yesterday. After one of those suckers, I won't be able to go near red meat for a week.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Bark: Frack me!

It takes a lot to drag me away from my PC to watch TV, but over the last few weeks, I've been utterly addicted to the remake series of Battlestar Galactica. I've been getting them on DVD on our LoveFilm rental scheme (since I don't have - or want - Sky), and on Friday night I watched nearly six solid hours of it: the last three episodes of Series One, and rewatched the opening mini-series; meaning that I didn't get to bed until, oooh... about half five this morning. Pretty fracking extreme.

I knew that as a sci-fi series it was rather well thought of, but because it's never been on terrestrial TV, I never got around to it until now. Mainly because I seriously wasn't expecting it to be as good as all the hype.

I loved the original series of Galactica when I was a kid: it was right up with there alongside The A-Team as obligatory Saturday morning TV. So I was initially quite skeptical about how they'd changed the gender and race of some of the characters, but after watching the mini-series, I was totally blown away. All the character tweaks work, make it more interesting (you can't imagine the new version of Colonel Tigh really being played for laughs) and give the series so much more depth.

My favourite character of the show by far is Baltar. He's no longer an outrageous, evilly cackling ham: he's more of an accidental collaborator, betrayed (and betraying the whole human race) by his all too human flaws. James Callis is absolutely wonderful in the role, too. Performances are uniformly superb from the whole cast, with Tricia Helfer and Katee Sackhoff as Number Six and Starbuck being my next favourites. Edward James Olmos is brilliant as well: he has a quiet dignity as Commander Adama - you can almost see the crushing weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

Perhaps the thing I like the most is that for a sci-fi series, it doesn't over-rely on special effects. Probably my favourite episode in the series is Flesh and Bone: and that's set mainly in a single room, with Starbuck interrogating a Cylon infiltrator. They're not jumping into Vipers every five minutes and blasting Cylon raiders into space dust - there's a real sense that the threat is much more insidious, because Cylons have the ability to appear as human. There's no gung-ho jingoism - fighting is rarely an option - they run because they *must*. It's well written, thought-provoking and wonderfully acted. It's the best TV series I've watched in years.

I've been on a bit of a downer all day because I've run out of episodes, and the Series 2 DVDs aren't out yet. Not to mention the fact that the series cliffhanger was one of the most unexpected and shocking I've seen. And I've got nearly two and a half months to wait until Series 2 comes out. Oh, MAN...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Byte: Cats, bags and outages; beans and spillages

You may recall that I was a little cryptic recently about one of the games I was playing. I think it's time to d├ęborder les haricots.

I consider myself quite privileged to know quite a lot of people within the videogames journalism paper press, and a couple of weeks ago, I got a rather unexpected offer. I was MSN'ed out of the blue by Keza McDonald, (a former contributor to Pro-G) who's now a staff writer at Games TM, who said that her editor needed someone to cover a couple of PC games, and wondered if I'd be interested.

Like I was going to say "No"...

A brief flurry of emails with the GTM editor later, and I'm inaugurated as an Imagine Publishing freelancer. The timing was splendidly ironic, given that only a couple of hours earlier, my GP had just signed me off work and told me that I couldn't use a computer for two weeks, due to my burgeoning RSI. Though thanks to some wonderfully serendipitous coincidence, the first review I had to write was for a game I'd already reviewed the previous week for Pro-G: Auto Assault - meaning that I didn't have to plug upwards of 30 or 40 hours into the game with a gammy arm before I could review it - since I'd already stuck the necessary game time doing the review for Pro-G. I just needed to type up the article with my one remaining good arm.

Thanks to the timely intervention of E3, I also had undoubtedly far more leeway than normal in terms of time before submitting the second review; which was just as well, given that it gave my arm sufficient time to recover and me enough time to play the game: Heroes of Might and Magic V. The game itself didn't - the review code was time-encoded to expire once the retail version hit the shelves - hence me having to go out and buy it to finish the review. You may have seen my review of it on Pro-G by now, so you will know that in terms of game length, it's a bit of a monster. (And also that it's very good, so I'm not at all bent about having to buy the game - it's something I may very well have bought anyway)

It's at this point that the story would be done and dusted, except that my girlfriend and I took advantage of the long Bank Holiday weekend to pop down the M4 to Bath for the day - where I recounted the story over a pub lunch to my friend Rich Cobbett, who happens to be Features Editor on PC Plus. After a long and valiant struggle, he's managed to persuade his editorial masters on the magazine to include an "After Hours" section to cover selected PC games. Knowing that I still had my Future freelance contract from the Devil's Advocate that I did (seemingly years ago now) for PC Gamer's redesign issue, he asked if I'd like to review HOMMV for him on PC Plus.

Like I was going to say "No"...

To be honest, I've been pretty surprised (not to mention flattered as hell) to be asked to do these reviews, as I think anyone who likes writing about games has pretensions of reviewing games for the paper press, but only a relatively few of those get to do it. Whether it's just a coincidence, a statistical aberration or a sign of greater things to come, I really don't know. I'd like to hope it's the latter, but I'm not counting any chickens and just enjoying the feeling of it.

Though after having done two reviews of Auto Assault and three of HOMMV in the space of a few weeks, I'm not sure I'm ever going to want to see the sight of them again...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Byte: The Mod Squad

It would appear that Blogger have upgraded their comments engine to allow moderation, so comments are back. For all two of you that aren't spambots who might actually think about using them...