Thursday, August 31, 2006

Byte: So much for never taking the plane again...

The editor of gamesTM emailed me this morning to ask if I would consider going to Seattle to do a hands-on preview of Supreme Commander... Perhaps those two reviews I did a couple of months back made more of an impression than I thought.

I couldn't exactly say no, not after already having to decline two pieces this month (mainly on account of me being out of the country on holiday so much). After all, it simply wouldn't do if I kept turning things down and then he stopped asking. Let's just hope that there aren't too many more foreign press trips coming up - I don't have much holiday left between now and April...

This whole games writing thing is starting to get slightly scary now. I never imagined I'd ever get to do things like this all those years ago when I started writing for Oskar on SMag. It's been quite a summer.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Byte: Wii will rock you

I'm back from my Busman's Holiday to Germany. It's a rare holiday for me when I'm actually going abroad to play videogames. I had a fantastic couple of days at the Games Convention in Leipzig, and on the press day I was accompanied around the exhibition halls on the press day by my cameraman, translator, personal assistant and friend, Sascha.

Though our tastes in videogames don't precisely tally, we do have one favourite game in common - World of Warcraft. Though Sascha's a rather more advanced player than I am - given that he has no less than four Level 60 characters, whilst I haven't even breached the Level 50 barrier yet with my most advanced character. Regardless, rather high up our priorities to play was WoW: The Burning Crusade, which reawakened pangs of longing for Azeroth in me. There's not really too much new in the expansion - two new races, Blood Elves for the Horde and the Draenei for the Alliance, plus one new profession (Jewelcrafting), but for me, it's a certain purchase. The game's as enchanting as always, and Blizzard have improved their already sterling attention to detail. The level of animation on the emotes is delightful: for example, the /train emote for the Draenei is hilarious. I'm about a fifth of the way through downloading a monstrous patch (over 450MB), since I haven't WoW'ed since May. The chances of me getting reacquainted with my characters tonight is somewhat slim...

We also had a quick blast on Neverwinter Nights 2 (the sequel to another common favourite) and it's nice to see the introduction of quite a few new features. The skills and feats follow traditional AD&D skills far more precisely this time (Diplomacy instead of Persuade, for example) and this time your mini-map has a lot more detail and marks the main points of interest of the zone you're in. It's possible to lead a much larger party now - more akin to Baldur's Gate than the original NWN, plus there's a new class of new playable races: Planetouched. I can see the Tieflings and Aasimars being rather popular, myself. The build I played was still rather raw and needed a bit of optimisation, but at least the start isn't painfully dull and leaps straight into the action.

An unexpected bonus was getting to play with the creature creator from Spore. I have no doubts that this game is going to be huge. People will spend hours just in the creature creator alone. You can really make some demented-looking beasts. I could play around with it for days. When Sascha sends over a picture of my creation, I'll be sure to upload it. He was so cute...

Other impressive games that caught my eye were Unreal Tournament 2007 (sadly not playable), UFO: Afterlight (which looks like improving upon the two previous UFO games), Armed Assault (the spiritual sequel to Operation Flashpoint, by Bohemia Interactive - it's Flashpoint with proper graphics, and will be ace, if they can sort out the optimisation and difficulty level - the build I played is a huge resource hog, not to mention even more unforgiving than the original) and Timeshift. Tom previewed this about a month back, and if anything, the build I played at Leipzig was even more impressive. The time manipulation mechanic is streets ahead of anything that's used bullet time. Here you can stop time, run up to enemies and steal their weapons, or simply run behind them and shoot them in the back of the head. Then you can reverse time, bring them back to life and do it all over again, except even more cruelly. This game will be a sadist's wet dream. Not just that, you can use the time shifting abilities of your Quantum Suit to help you solve environmental puzzles - it's going to be a real thinking man's FPS. I can't wait for review code - assuming we can persuade Vivendi to send us the PC version as well as the 360 version... otherwise I might actually have to go out and buy it.

The star of the show, however, was the Nintendo Wii. Unfortunately for the proles, it wasn't playable on the show floor (but then, Sony completely no-showed with the PS3 as well), but for those of us lucky enough to have access to the Business Centre, we could get a hands-on. I was pretty much sold the concept of the Wii months ago, but now I've actually played with one, if this doesn't outsell the PS3, then it's time for me to give up playing videogames, because there's clearly no hope for the industry at all. I'm pretty much convinced now that Nintendo are content to let Microsoft and Sony fight for the hardcore market, because the Wii is the perfect party game machine. It will still have the odd fantastic game tailored for the hardcore (the Red Steel's and Metroid Prime's of this world), but its in the casual market that the Wii is really going to score its points. I played Baseball and Tennis in Wii Sports, and it's just so different to how you've played anything before.

The remote controller is a work of genius - truly. Not only is it much less intimidating for a console newcomer to get to grips with, the motion sensing works incredibly well - I didn't notice any lag at all when I was playing Baseball. You're going to want to play most of the games standing up, because the dynamic method of control really makes you feel like you want to get your whole body involved. When I was hitting pitches, I was holding the remote behind my head with both hands, swinging and following through with my entire body, stepping forward into the simulated throw, hitting the majority of balls into the stands. By contrast, another journalist was playing rooted to the spot, wafting the remote around weakly and didn't hit a single pitch. You've really got to be able to make that mental leap from translating what you do with your body in real-life to what's happening on the screen. I imagine that it's going to pose more of a problem for the keyboard-and-mouse brigade and the hardcore console gamers who are set in their ways to more casual players. I thought that the controller was very intuitive and felt natural to use - far more so than I'd imagined. Moving the controller vertically to pitch the toss of a tennis serve, and then swinging the controller to simulate the racket felt so damned good and easy - Ninty are really trying to make gaming much less intimidating to people who would baulk at being given a dual-shock pad. The potential of that controller (even without force feedback - though I bet Ninty are working on a rumble force plug-in) really scares me. If LucasArts don't make a lightsaber duelling game for that controller, I will goddamn design and fund one *myself*...

I also got to take a good look at Rayman Raving Rabbids, which has got to be the best party game I've ever seen. Relentlessly cute, yet still a little bit sinister, and taking elements of rhythm-action games, shooters and just about everything else under the sun... It's going to be huge. Michel Ancel is a marvel. Completely batshit insane, if RRR is anything to go by, but a marvel, nonetheless.

Finally, I got to play Red Steel - the game I essentially went to the convention to see. Graphically, it's not up to much, but that's more because the E3 demo I played was developed on a Gamecube dev kit, rather than the Wii itself. The final version will look much better. The game itself is really impressive. Using the remote and the nunchuk controller is (again) very intuitive, though will take some getting used to for some people, I imagine. Red Steel's got some very cool ideas - like being able to take a look inside a room, scope out all the enemies and use your pistol to disarm them all in a single volley of lead. Then you have the option of letting them live, or killing them where they kneel in surrender. The sword fighting isn't quite as good as I imagined, though apparently they're revamping it after the feedback they had from E3, to move away from the mouse-gesture style sword control to something a little more dynamic - which if they can make it more akin to the baseball bat control in Wii Sports, will be all kinds of awesome.

In short, I'm pre-ordering a Wii as soon as I can ( won't let me at the moment), because I'm totally convinced that it's *the* console of the Next-Gen consoles to have. It might not have the technical puissance of the PS3 or the 360, but I'm more and more inclined to think that the Wii will have the kind of games I will want to play. Not to mention the fact it should be a darned sight cheaper than its competitors, too.

Everyone now... Wii will, Wii will ROCK YOU!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Byte: A leaving present

Since I'm about to sod off on holiday for another week, I thought I'd throw you another bone to keep you occupied until I'm back. It surely can't have escaped your notice how YouTube has become one of the hippest internet sites to be seen at lately.

Normally, I can't be bothered with all that, as I've got better things to do than trawl video sites for esoteric 1950's adverts for Fairy Liquid, or whatever. But then someone with far too much time on their hands does something like this.

In case an unsolicited link doesn't get you all clicking like mad (and why wouldn't it???), here's the deal: Someone has taken Darth Vader's scenes from the original Star Wars and over-dubbed them with lines from 1970's Blacksploitation pictures starring James Earl Jones. The result is a somewhat different Darth Vader than you might be used to. Pure genius.

My favourite scene: the TIE Fighter trench run.

Eternal thanks to Rob Hale for the link.

Bark: New Entries

You may (or may not) have noticed that a couple of new names have popped up on the "Favourite People" list...

The first is Tove Hirth, a genuinely lovely lady who was the unlucky victim that had to sit next to me (and listen to me drunkenly blather on about the merits of videogames as art forms, and how Michael Mann is clearly the greatest film director, ever) at the reception dinner of the wedding Fleur and I had travelled to Norway for. Tove, impressively, is a very talented sculptor and bronzecaster. I was surprised to learn when browsing her site that she had made awards for the Edinburgh Film Festival... Really rather cool.

Kaspar I have mentioned in these missives before - as he was the person that introduced me to one of my favourite work avoidance strategies - Urban Dead. However, up 'til now, I was unaware of his superbly named Blog - the Kasblah. (As in "Rock the Kasblah", presumably...) Now that his (aforementioned) wedding is safely out of the way, and he and his new bride Sabine are firmly entrenched in Olso, fingers crossed he'll update it a bit more regularly...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Bark: Escape to Victoly

It's been a somewhat hectic summer. Not only have I had a trip to Normandy last month, but I've been back home for less than a week after a ten day holiday in Norway; and on Monday, I fly out to Germany for a week.

Norway was idyllic - undoubtedly one of the best holidays I've ever had. I genuinely didn't want to come back. Especially when I saw on the news all the crap that was happening at Heathrow. It was getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the news coverage on CNN and BBC World from the newscasts on V for Vendetta, which was on the movie channel. The contrast between the hysteria over security and the serenity I enjoyed on the Sognefjord couldn't have been any greater.

I really don't like what's happening to the UK lately. How can it be anything other than a total victory for terrorism that the insane plans of less than two dozen people can lead to such chaos and misery for hundreds of thousands of people? And that was without a drop of blood being spilt.

I'm playing Civilization IV: Warlords at the moment for review, and last night I was struck by a particular (mis)quote of Benjamin Franklin from the Civilopedia when I unlocked the Liberalism advance: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

The original quote is: "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety"

I don't know about you, but I don't feel particularly safe or secure knowing that people will think you're a terrorist if you try and take contact lense fluid or sun-block onto a plane in your hand luggage. Or that I should carry everything in a clear plastic bag, to show that I don't have anything to hide. If I hadn't booked the trip to Frankfurt and Leipzig months ago (i.e. had already paid for it all), I wouldn't be taking the plane on Monday. I certainly can't see myself taking the plane again (by choice) anytime soon. This shit's seriously getting out of hand. Next time I'm travelling to Europe, fuck all that, I'm taking my car and the ferry. At least then I won't have to worry about a body cavity search whenever I want to travel somewhere.

I can only see Britain going one way, as long as the government pursues this fucking stupid (and completely unwinnable) "War on Terror" - and that's down, down, DOWNHILL. I'm giving serious consideration to getting out of this country permanently - to a place where "freedom" isn't a nebulous concept that you can fight for abroad (sticking in our noses where they weren't wanted anyway) by getting rid of it at home. You can't justify *anything* and *everything* in the name of national security - it's ridiculous. Governments all want to be "tough on terrorism", because it makes them seem strong and makes them popular with people too stupid to realise that people are only terrorists because it works (i.e. about 95% of the population). All this "we don't negotiate with terrorists" shit - it makes me sick. Like the British Government didn't negotiate with the IRA in Northern Ireland... fucking hypocrites. It's just that the IRA were good *Christian* terrorists, so it was *okay* to talk to them.

It's not like there's anything really keeping me in this country other than debt - temporary financial necessity - and the inertia brought on fear of change. Once the car's paid off, I'm outta here, because I'd rather get out of this sorry-ass country and live somewhere where there isn't an overriding atmosphere of fear oozing through the media and society. That and because I don't want to be remembered as someone who coasted through life on autopilot and never did what they really wanted to in their lifetime because they were too afraid to take the risk. I don't think I could ever look myself in the mirror if I turned around in my mid-fifties and saw that I was still stuck here doing a job I didn't particularly like, just for the money, treading water and not doing what I really would love to do instead...

Seriously, what's good about the UK? Property prices and energy prices are through the roof - you can barely make ends meet when you've got a salary over £30,000 in the South East... and society? What society? We're all being carefully programmed by the government to be fearful, patriotic, good little consumer chavs with Burberry iPods, who should keep an eye on their neighbours because they might be Islamic terrorists... or paedophiles.

And don't even get me started on the Israelis and Lebanon. How can the UK government stand by for A MONTH, letting the Israelis bomb the shit out of Lebanon, before calling for an *immediate* ceasefire - and then have the temerity to claim that their foreign policy doesn't incite terrorism against the UK? Oh, sure, they said they wanted a ceasefire, they just didn't want to upset the Israelis by asking for an "immediate" one straight away... How many deaths were the result of that particular missing word in statements on the conflict by the US and UK governments? And never mind the inherent hypocracy that the US were shipping laser-guided bombs to the Israelis via UK airports for use in Lebanon all the time they were asking for a cessation of the violence. And just to show that they were being even-handed, they gave a bit of food aid to the Lebanese. As if that makes up for the fact that nearly all the weapons used to destroy the infrastructure in Lebanon were US-made. Still, I bet Halliburton are in for the reconstruction contracts. It's truly mind-boggling. To use another quote (this time from George Bernard Shaw) - "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." That pretty much sums up the Middle East at the moment...

So, I'm putting together an escape plan to be out of the UK within two years. That's if the Thought Police aren't in control of the borders by then. Norway looks like a good candidate for my political asylum application. The people there are lovely and the country itself is even more so - the coastal areas and the fjords are like the Highlands of Scotland - expect about five times prettier. There's not even so much of a language barrier to worry about - it's for all intents and purposes a completely bilingual society. Practically everyone is fluent in English and speak it better than most British natives. I was amazed by the TV over there - *all* foreign TV programs, from films, series like The Simpsons and CSI, to documentaries are all shown with subtitles and in their original language - not over-dubbed, as you'd expect over here, or elsewhere in Europe. No wonder they're all such good linguists. Norwegian itself looks like an interesting language, too - though I didn't pick up so much when I was over there, it's fairly intuitive if you've done some German - and the Bergen accent reminded both Fleur and myself of the Alsatian dialect in Alsace. If I were to live there, I'm fairly confident I could pick it up fairly quickly.

There are downsides, naturally, particularly that a pint of beer costs the equivalent of £6 in pubs and restaurants, which would rival your average London nightclub. Then again, I have to cut down on the boozing anyway. Besides, Norwegian Pear Cider is better than anything I've had out of an English orchard, let me tell you. That alone is worth emigrating for. Even Fleur likes it. I did seem to get on with the diet over there, however. With all that fish, reindeer (yes, I ate Rudolph) and plenty of exercise (including a 25km mountain bike trip around Solvorn), I lost over 3kg in little over a week. Pretty impressive stuff. A few months of that, and I might get into something approximating good physical shape.

I've been checking around on the internet (and in the windows of the estate agents in Bergen while I was there); it seems that as long as I don't move into the centre of somewhere like Oslo or Bergen, property prices are a heck of a lot more reasonable than they are here in the UK, as well. How does £30k for a square kilometre of land sound? Pretty damned good to me...

If I'm not living within a stone's throw of a fjord by Christmas 2008, writing my first novel, I had better bloody well have found a damn good reason why not...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Byte: Travelogue

My travelogue piece for the Company of Heroes press trip is up now on Pro-G. Enjoy.

The preview piece covering the actual game itself will be up tomorrow, but I'll be too busy packing for my trip to Norway to link you to it... so keep 'em peeled.