Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Byte: Game On

As most of the people who read this should already know, the Game On exhibition is currently running at the Science Museum in Kensington (finishing at the tail end of February).

I'm trying to scrape up a Baldur's Gate-style party to go there with me on the 18th of November. Other than myself, I've got four people confirmed as being able to come, with another three or four people pencilled in as being interested, who will make it if they can. The Game On at the Barbican a couple of years back was excellent, and initial reports are that this one is just as good. So if you were planning on going to see the expo, do let me know if you can make it on the 18th, as it's far more fun going around these things in a group than on your own. And it's also a good excuse to get together in the pub for a couple of hours afterwards, too...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Byte: So you want to be badly paid, stressed and unappreciated? Really? Gosh.

There appears to be a rash of "So you want to be a games journalist?" articles infecting the blogosphere tonight, ranging from The Triforce's allegorical tale, to Kieron and Richard's somewhat more helpful guides.

This all appears to be a carefully orchestrated response to this feature detailing the blindingly obvious on Game Career Guide. (Probably one of the most useless websites in the world, incidentally)

It's somewhat stretching the imagination to call myself a videogames journalist, as that would imply I make a living from it, but I do write about games, and have been doing so for a fair while now for both the print and online press, so here's my two pence on the subject - while the bandwagon's here to be jumped on.

Firstly, remember that people write not because they want to, but because they *must*. This is why I was up until 3.30am on Friday night/Saturday morning coming up with a precis for an academic reference textbook on high-level videogame design. Normal people don't do this kind of thing. Writing is a disease... like a cancer of the soul: it consumes you - you don't do it out of choice. So if you want to become a games writer because you love games and you think it might be fun to write about them as well... forget it. 90% of the time writing isn't fun. Sitting behind your keyboard staring at a blank screen for a couple of hours because you can't find your first sentence is akin to Chinese Water Torture. Even if you're utterly mad about games, translating that passion from your brain into words on the page is no simple matter. And it should also be remembered that there's nothing like turning a hobby into a job to suck all the fun out of it, as critically analysing a game isn't as much fun as simply sitting down and playing it. Also remember that if you're a games journalist, at some point you're going to have to play shitty games you normally wouldn't touch with a barge pole. And getting the game free isn't much by way of compensation, if you're being subjected to the horrors of titles like MetalHeart: Replicants Rampage.

Secondly, games journalism isn't the glamorous profession you might (deludedly) think it is. It involves long hours, lots of stress around deadline and the pay isn't up to much. Why do you think I work as an IT Specialist? I might work long hours and get lots of stress in my job, but at least it pays three times as much as your average staff writer's post on a games mag... I'm lucky enough that I can indulge my urge to play games and my impulse to write without having to rely on them to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. The money I get from writing is a bonus - not a motivating factor, and I personally think that's the best way to do it.

There's a reason why most of these "So you want..." articles that have sprung up tonight are dripping with sarcasm or are outright off-putting. As Tim (whose fault this all is) recognises in his post on the subject, decent writers (never mind decent games writers) are few and far between, which is just as well, as there aren't that many jobs in print journalism to go around. If you truly want to break into games journalism, my advice would be don't read guides, no matter who's written them. Figure it out for yourself. If you don't have the persistence or tenacity to be able to do that, then you're wasting your time.

Richard Branson didn't read a "So you want to be a billionaire entrepreneur?" guide... he just went out and did it. If you want to be successful at anything - writing, business - you've got to be able to stand on your own two feet and think for yourself. Don't expect anything to be laid out on a plate for you.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Bark: Choose ROFL

When things are going for you, they're *really* going for you.

Things got off to a bad start this week when I came down with flu and my eyelid flared up again, making me look like I'd gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson and sound like General Grievous from Revenge of the Sith.

I've also been waiting all week for that Medieval 2 review code to arrive, so as I'm in the office today, I called home to ask my girlfriend if I'd had any post. The answer was "kind of" - the Postman had left a note saying that I had a package, but that the sender hadn't paid the full amount of postage for it, so if I want to pick it up, I have to come to the local Post Office and pay the balance... Terrific!

But to cap it off, on Wednesday my counsellor binned the session I was due to have on Thursday night and essentially said that she couldn't help me. Which was great. Lost cause, don't even try. Fuck you, fuck you very much! So I guess I learnt a valuable lesson: don't ever rely on anyone else to help you, because you just end up getting let down and fucked over. So, you know what? If the world wants to reward people who are ruthless, heartless, self-serving bastards (because, face it, that's what the free market economy does) then I guess if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Life's too short to be miserable, so as my mate Chris used to say at Napoleon's - "Fuck 'em. Fuck 'em all!"

Given the choice between laughing and crying after the week I've had, I choose ROFL. Albeit a slightly maniacal and hysterical ROFL, but ROFL nonetheless...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Byte: WoW: Burning Crusade delayed

Firstly, I'm quite surprised that this would make the BBC News website.

Secondly, I'm actually mildly pleased, as it gives me more time to reach the current level cap before everyone charges off to reach the new one. I hit level 52 with my main character on Tuesday night, which was quite surprising, since I had only got to 51 the previous evening. It's amazing what you can do when you don't have your girlfriend enforcing a sleeping curfew... (she was visiting friends up in Lincoln at the beginning of the week)

So, only eight more levels to go, and about nine weeks to get them in. Will our plucky hero succeed? I'm surprised Shareth has made it this far, to be honest. Things got pretty sticky around level 40 when I seemed to be spending most of my time getting ganked in Stranglethorn Vale. Soloing your way to level 60 (which is what I've mostly been doing) is definitely the hard way of playing the game - it's taken me nearly two years to get to this point, which adds up to a solid fourteen days play - that's almost 350 hours. According to the stats put together by this fascinating site I've got about 150 hours until I can expect to hit level 60. So that's a tall order to get all those hours squeezed in between now and January, especially with all the other commitments on my free time. But I'll give it a good go anyway... Besides, I've always found playing Warcraft that it's more about having fun on the journey than reaching the destination at the end. So if I don't hit level 60 before Burning Crusade comes out, it's no big disaster.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bark: P-p-p-pick up a... pigeon?

Quite a sinister story on BBC News today. Now, I have eaten pigeon myself in France, and it was quite good, but personally, I wouldn't go so far as to eat one from a park in central London. And I'm pretty sure that pelicans shouldn't be eating them either.

A quote from the photographer:

It was kicking and flapping the whole way down.

Well, if you were being EATEN WHOLE, you would, wouldn't you? Brrr.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Byte: Not so much a foot in the door as a leg

Pleasingly, the work from gamesTM keeps coming. And now it's a review of something that actually stands a chance of getting a decent score. Which means not only will my bank manager be happy that I'm supplementing my income with more freelance cash, but I can be happy that I can play a brilliant game and GET PAID FOR IT. This review will pay for my Nintendo Wii. How's that for a happy thought?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bark: The road to recovery?

I had my first session with the counsellor the company found for me tonight. Quite a surreal experience. I wasn't really sure what to expect - certainly not miracles - but I'm a little unsure as to what we achieved tonight. I'm sure that's pretty normal, to be fair, as simply articulating how I'm feeling (or trying to, at least) took up most of the session. I even gave her the weblink to this blog, which I'm sure will raise a couple of eyebrows and give us a few things to talk about next week...

The written word is probably a more honest window into someone's mind than a spoken conversation because there are fewer boundaries to expression - it's just you, your thoughts and a keyboard.

A few interesting things did crop up in our conversation. Firstly that I'm rather disillusioned with Mankind as a species at the moment. As I alluded to here, I find it really pretty disgusting that not only can Mankind be utterly complicit with the systematic destruction of the environment it lives in the name of profit, but that governments can also prize their own possession of power over the service of the people that they govern. It's almost as if anything can be justified in the name of short-term gain: "I'm alright, Jack" as a governing principle - just let our grandkids clean up the mess. Not that this is any real surprise - the vested interests from institutions as diverse as churches, monarchies, governments and corporations have always opposed change and fought tooth and nail for the status quo. As long as they hold the money and the power, they're quite content to let the world burn, even going so far as to strike the match, from The Crusades to the second Gulf War. As George Bernard Shaw once said "The one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." We keep making the same mistakes and paying the same price. It's a consequence of the selfishness of human nature - plus it's inherent drive and ambition: Take land, take resources, gain power and destroy anything that tries to get in the way. It's a principle abided by from Alexander the Great, through Genghis Khan to Hitler (and even the current US administration). But after over 4000 years of philosophical and scientific research, how can we still continue to make the same mistakes? I find it hard to accept that we've learnt so little.

I look at the world and see it as being badly broken; and having a good scientific brain, I want to analyse and fix it (undoubtedly a typically male response as well - "Let me get my spanner and screwdriver. We'll be done in a jiffy!"). Studying physics gives you the ability to assimilate information at the macro and micro scales: from the cosmological to the quantum. So you look at the world differently from other people, and this makes you more inclined to question it and want to figure out how things relate to each other. You look at a system, analyse it, see how it works, reduce it to its first principles, see how they work, analyse again and repeat.

I've done this with modern society and identified several major "components" in the way it is structured that directly contribute to the unrest and instability in the world we live in today. (Note: this is by no means a complete and exhaustive list)

1) Religion: Fundamentalist religion is probably the biggest cause of instability in the system (for want of a better word) that we call "The Earth". Religious belief promotes ignorance and intolerance, by demanding faith without critical reasoning and by pitching belief systems into conflict with one another. Christianity and Islam in particular also assert that people can live their lives according to the knowledge and values set out in texts written nearly two thousand years ago, when the structure of society was very different to today's, and our scientific understanding of the universe was much more limited. The whole concept that people should live according to such archaic and outdated codes of conduct is anathema to me. These books were written when their authors had no concept of mass communication, mass transit of large numbers of people across huge distances by air, land and sea, or that people from myriad diverse cultures could be crammed together living in huge metropolises containing millions of people. Now, being a liberal, I'm more than happy to allow people to believe what they want to believe. Some people do find religious faith a valueable force in their lives, and if it helps make them happy, fine. However, religious fundamentalism is dangerous because of its inflexibility - and when you have such a large, culturally diverse population crammed into large centres of population, such inflexibility creates intolerance, tension and inevitably results in violence. And when you have governments actively embracing religious fundamentalism, it results in only one thing: war.

2) Capitalism: The Western world holds up capitalism as some kind of paragon of economic and social virtue; claiming that in the capitalist system, anyone can become a wealthy and successful. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. Capitalism is the single biggest pyramid scheme on the planet. The nature of capitalism requires that a huge workforce of cheap labour prop up the system so that you can pop down the high street and buy your Nike trainers for the price of a couple of month's salary of the people who made them. It's a system that has the richest 1% of the world's population earning nearly 100 times that of the bottom 20% combined, and this gap gets wider all the time, instead of narrowing. We have the technology and the resources now to ensure that no-one in the world has to live in poverty, but even in burgeoning economic states like India, you still have families living on less than a dollar a day. Politicians continually state that their main priority is "economic stability" so that they're "not risking peoples' mortgages", yet they still subscribe to a system that requires an ultimately unsustainable level of year on year growth to remain stable. The bottom always falls out of pyramid schemes eventually, but as long as the people at the top keep making money... to hell with the people at the bottom who get fucked over. Of course, realigning the world economy to a more equitable, meritocratic system would be no simple matter. I can't imagine many billionaires being pleased if they were told "sorry, there are a couple of billion people in Africa that need this money more than you do", but unless something is done to close the gap between the world's rich and poor, this again will lead to conflict.

3) Denial of Global Warming and fossil fuel dependance: This follows on from Capitalism, really. There are still governments out there that refuse to acknowledge that global warming is a problem, simply because they don't want to compromise their economic growth. It's also no coincidence that these governments also tend to be among the worst polluters. Despite all the evidence from environmental scientists that industrialisation is affecting our environment far more seriously than previously thought and that a tipping point on climate change (where irrevocable damage has been done) could be less than 10 years away, we still can't even agree on what should be done. Humanity is sticking its head in the sand and hoping that the problem will simply go away... and by the time it takes its head back out again, it'll find itself under three metres of water because all the glaciers and half the polar ice caps have melted. There are plenty of viable alternatives to fossil fuels out there, but (of course) no-one wants to fund the research because it's too expensive and will hit their bottom line. In other words, corporations will only try to save the world if there's money in it. As if profits will matter a damn when the environment is stuffed beyond repair...

4) Fear and loathing in the media: The news media has evolved rather worryingly in the last 15-20 years. It's become far more sensationalist, snappier, glossier and provokative. Not only that, the news has become almost exclusively dominated by negative reporting: murder, rape, child abduction, terrorism, war, religious tension. And when its not about promoting a climate of fear, suspicion and intolerance, it's covering which celebrity couple has just broken up, who's been voted off Big Brother, or something equally vacuous and irrelevant. News used to be about informing people. Now it's either there to scare us senseless, or distract us from the real issues that matter. Though again, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The news corporations have their own agenda in the ratings war - be the slickest, most controversial and you'll make the most money - and governments have long manipulated the media for their own ends. I don't even watch ITV News anymore - it's Fox News Lite - and the BBC is little better. Only Channel 4 News (and perhaps Newsnight) has any integrity or the semblance of balanced, in-depth, non-sensationalist reporting anymore. The rest needs to be taken with more seasoning than your daily recommended salt intake...

My counsellor suggested to me that perhaps part of the reason I was unhappy was because I saw this big picture, and that maybe problems as large as these cannot be solved. I thought that was quite an odd, even defeatist, statement. People said that Man would never fly, or that we would never get a man to walk on the surface of the Moon. I believe that any problem can be solved if there is enough will to do it. Clearly, in the case of flaws in a system this large, it would be unrealistic to think that I could fix them alone.

Perhaps I just need to find problems I can fix, things that will make me feel that I've made some tangible difference that matters, and then hope that some kind of Butterfly Effect occurs - by making one small, positive change to the system, given time it will influence larger, positive changes. I still don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I'm going to give it a lot of thought in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bark: Grrrrr! And Grrrrrr! Again!

Hmmm. It's not been such a good day. I got randomly shouted at and verbally abused during my lunchtime WoW session by a Level 60 Mage - all of 13 years old, probably, judging by how quickly he threw his dummy out of the pram by me DARING to QUEST in an area he was already in. So I told him to fuck off and stop being such a dipshit. Like being Level 60 means you have the right to claim the server as your personal playing ground... Fuck's sake. MMORPGs would be great if it weren't for the other people...

Actually, I take that back. A lot of the people are great: my long-term friends Zinar and Fearx especially, plus newer acquiantances, such as the superbly named Turbobavern. It's just the petulant idiots that bring the experience down. I can deal with the Level 60 Rogues who get a kick out of ganking level 20 alt-characters (that kind of behaviour is kind of expected, and Uther knows I'll bloody well gank mercilessly when Shareth finally hits the top of the level tree), but sheer outright rudeness from people who are meant to be on your own side... it drives me up the wall. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the idiots I meet on the server are Brits and the really nice people are from mainland Europe, either. Hell, if my French or German were better I wouldn't bloody well play on an English-speaking server at all. (Though that would unfortunately mean that I'd miss out on playing with all the lovely Scandinavians, who in my experience are all uniformly brilliant - why can't Blizzard do some Norwegian/Swedish/Danish servers?) I think I'm going to take a break from playing with my alts and put all my time into Shareth, my Druid. It'd be nice to get up to Level 60 before they raise the Level Cap with Burning Crusade. Though I reckon my chances of that happening are pretty slim. Oh, well.

That, however, wasn't the thing that *really* pissed me off today. I mentioned last week that I'd decided that I'd reached a point where I thought I needed to use the company's counselling service. Well, good as gold, the assistance program duly found me a counsellor, and gave me their contact details. I called last Thursday and left them a message (as I'd been told to do). Up until this morning, they still hadn't called me back to arrange an appointment. So I left another message just before lunch. And didn't get a peep out of them all day. Can you believe that? After getting past the mental block of actually admitting your problem is serious enough to seek help for, the FUCKING COUNSELLOR can't be arsed to return your calls! Do you ever get the impression that someone's got it in for you? I'm going to call the assistance program and get them to find me another counsellor, because that's so out of order.

I'm going into the office tomorrow so that I can have a chat with my manager and maybe arrange some time off, because trying to work when I'm having so much trouble keeping a thought straight in my head for more than 20 minutes clearly isn't working; and that's not fair on the project, as I'm about as productive as a plumber drinking a pot of tea at the moment. My sleeping and eating patterns are all screwed up and I'm running on a shorter fuse than a 5-second grenade... You can imagine that I'm not exactly great company at the moment. So beware if you pay a visit to my Defcon server in the next few evenings...

Byte: Stop that. Stop it, it's silly.

This is getting ridiculous now. IGN UK asked me this morning if I wanted a trip to Kiev next week to do a hands-on preview of STALKER for them. I had to decline on several grounds: a) I don't think my bank account could deal with another trip abroad at the moment, b) I don't have the holiday left to take the time off, c) I don't think I could mentally handle a deadline anyway, d) the THQ PR's are probably sick of the sight of me by now, and e) the multiplayer I got to have a blast on in Leipzig was shite, so I don't fancy a flight all the way out to Kiev to play an equally buggy singleplayer.

Besides, Kiev is in the Ukraine, so I don't want to risk being kidnapped, tortured and killed by the local Mafia after they've sent an unsolicited call girl to your hotel room and you've told her to piss off... There are scary people in Eastern Europe. I'd rather go to America again and be grilled by the Immigration Officials...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Byte: It's officially totally official

StarForce genuinely is Teh Shitz. I'd been wondering why my machine had become a little unstable and was randomly alt-tabbing out of full-screen applications or causing my optical mouse to go haywire, and I spent this lunchtime thinking about how it started.

I recalled that it started pretty much after I came back from Leipzig, which narrowed down the list of potential culprits very quickly. The preview code for Armed Assault had required me to install StarForce, and looking back, it was only after I installed that when I began to have problems. So I uninstalled the game (which is shaping up quite well, by the way - it's the same old hard-as-diamond Operation Flashpoint we all know and love, but with graphics that don't melt your eyeballs... well, not *quite* so badly, anyway) and immediately took a hatchet to my Device Manager to get rid of the (hidden) StarForce drivers, that despite being software, manifest themselves under "Non-Plug-'n'-Play" hardware devices in your System menu.

I've left the machine on all day, and it's not had a single glitch. Funny that...

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bark: Lost Highway

Something tells me I shouldn't really be watching David Lynch when I'm feeling out of sorts, but WHAT THE FUCK WAS ALL THAT ABOUT THEN?

Answers on a postcard, please, to the usual address.

Bark: A rubbish burglar

If you're going to be a thief, then the one thing you might want to consider avoiding is leaving evidence of your crime. This basic concept, however, didn't occur to a man in Plymouth who decided that there was probably good money in stealing CCTV cameras...

Amazingly, this story turns out not to be an urban myth. I wouldn't normally post a link to The Sun, but the only other paper that covered the story online was the Daily Mail, and I do still have principles, you know. I will only stoop so low in my linkage...

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bark: Making Sven look good

Is schadenfreude a sign of being a bad person? Because when I was driving to Sainsbury's to get lunch seeing a huge queue of cars travelling in the other carriageway being stuck behind a slow moving tractor made me laugh. Twice. Because I passed him once on the way to the supermarket and again on the way back to the flat.

Though it didn't make me laugh quite as much as this did. Richard Williams in The Guardian summed it up beautifully: "they [England's players] were trying to write sonnets with alphabet soup." Heh-heh-heh.

Bark: It's the 21st Century, so...

...why aren't we all living out here yet?

Byte: People who need to die #1-4

#1: The people who invented adverts for the internet.

#2: The people who invented pop-up adverts for the internet to suck even more of your precious bandwidth away and be even more intrusive to your web browsing.

#3: The people who invented pop-up adverts for the internet that circumvent your pop-up blocking software for when you try and get rid of the ads invented by the people to be killed for #2.

#4: The people who decided that the pop-up adverts from #3 *still* weren't intrusive and annoying enough, so then changed them so that clicking the "Close" link ACTUALLY OPENS THE ADVERTISED WEBSITE ANYWAY.

This may become a long-running series...

Byte: *snigger*

A recent South Park episode in the US takes a beautifully calculated snipe at World of Warcraft. It's a shame they didn't sneak in a Leroy Jenkins homage, but's still very, very funny.

Byte: Failed Videogame Pitches #2457

Massively Multiplayer Online Gurning

Using a combination of the technology from Garry's Mod for Half-Life 2 and Toribash, compete online in turn-based face-pulling battles, where the most grotesque visage wins. Extra points can be gained by using your facial muscles to rip off parts of your face and hurl them at your opponents.

(Suffice to say, I had a very bizarre dream last night. For those of you that have no idea what gurning is, well... these pictures say it all really.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bark: The Mother of all Thunderstorms

We had a spectacular thunderstorm this morning, that resulted in a power cut for about an hour. I'm hoping that it was just a coincidence and not some kind of omen that it happened immediately after I'd just rang the Employee Assistance Program's counselling service to make an appointment... It's not been a good week; my main WoW character Shareth (Night Elf Druid) hitting Level 50 notwithstanding.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bark: Tension in the household

[singing]1-0! 1-0! 1-0! 1-0![/singing]

Not often I get to crow about one of Scotland's football results. Especially when my girlfriend is French and she's used to her team reaching World Cup Finals...

In other news, I've just come back from watching Children of Men at the cinema. It's fucking brilliant. It's utterly bleak and relentless, but nontheless a must-see film. It's a shame Julianne Moore didn't have more to do, but Clive Owen holds the film together brilliantly. And watch out for Peter Mullan's cameo as Syd. He's hilarious. Top notch direction, too.

Byte: Advanced Defcon 101

I promise I'll shut up about Defcon soon. But first I wanted to share a few more advanced tactics that you can use to get ahead in games. Just don't use them against me, m'kay?

1) Effective Bomber Use: Don't place your airbases right on the doorstep of enemy territory. This is so that your bombers will arm their nukes before entering enemy anti-air cover. Also ensure that all bombers are in the air five minutes before Defcon 1 is declared.

2) Don't commit your carrier fleets too soon: Entering into fleet combat immediately upon Defcon 3 will needlessly lose you a lot of fleet capacity. You specifically want to protect your carriers, as they carry a potentially vital resource of nukes. If you positively *must* engage in fleet combat, make sure that you use battleship fleets as a screening force for your carriers, and prioritise the launch of carrier-based bombers over fighters. This will not only give you a significant advantage in neutralising the enemy fleet, but will also ensure that your bombers are already in the air moving towards strategic targets in preparation for Defcon 1. Where possible, keep your fleets within range of friendly anti-air cover or airbases, so that land-based fighters can intercept any hostile air forces, and also keep the anti-air systems of enemy battleships occupied and prevent them targeting your more precious bombers.

3) Use every last nuke: This may sound obvious, but you need to commit your bomber force early, and use all the nuke capacity stored at your airbases as quickly as possible. Airbases are more vulnerable to counter-attack than your missile silos, so it's important to use them quickly. If you use all the nuke reloads at one airbase and have spare bombers sitting on the ground, don't be afraid to transfer bombers from carriers or other airbases to places where spare nukes are lying around unused. They're better off in the air than on the ground.

4) Coordinate your attacks: If you're attacking a target where anti-air defences are still in place, you need to have a very high volume of nukes entering the airspace if you want to have any hope of hitting your targets. Try to time attacks so that all your nukes will enter the target area in as short a timescale as possible. If necessary, coordinate fighter incursions into enemy airspace to give the anti-air facilities too many targets to fire at, increasing the chances of your nukes leaking through.

5) Use intelligence gained from alliances to your advantage: It's a dog-eat-dog world out there. If you don't stab people in the back first, it's going to happen to you. There are winners and victims. Don't be a victim...

6) Timing is everything: If you don't get the timing of your attack right, you're going to lose. Defcon is a game of thermonuclear chicken. In general (but not always), he who twitches last, lives longest. When the hard rain starts to fall, (i.e. when you start detecting enemy launches), don't leave your counter-attack too long, otherwise your nukes will be met with a reception of withering air defence fire. Ideally, you want to get your nukes in the air as soon as you know that the enemy's silos have switched from air defence to launch mode. This gives you a much better chance of landing hits on enemy cities. Just make sure that you have a couple of silos still providing air defence cover between you and the incoming nukes to minimise your losses.

7) Play the percentages: Always keep a small reserve of nukes until the victory timer starts, and keep at least one silo close to your major city in air defence mode at all times.

8) Errors in asset placement will hurt you in the endgame: Ensure that you place your assets in mutually supportive positions. Don't leave major cities without air defence cover, and make sure you have airbases that can not only penetrate deeply into enemy territory, but also quickly defend your coastline, in the event of submarine attack.

9) Don't commit your submarine force into an unknown situation: You don't want to surface into the middle of an enemy fleet and lose all your subs before they've been able to launch a single nuke. Either keep a healthy distance between the submarine fleet and the coast when launching missiles, or use friendly air cover from carrier fleets to screen the attack.

10) Don't get hung up on trying to destroy enemy assets: While destroying enemy silos, airbases and radar stations does give you a strategic advantage, don't waste nukes from your silos trying to destroy them, unless you find them early in the game (between Defcon 3 and Defcon 1), when a first strike will reap the greatest rewards. Otherwise view them as targets of opportunity for your submarine and bomber forces. It's the number of hits of major population centres that will win you the game, not how many hardware assets you destroy. In general, you can probably afford to ignore them completely, unless taking one out (silos in particular) would leave an exploitable gap in your enemy's defences. If your first awareness of a missile silo is when it first starts launching missiles, it's not really worth trying to take out , as it will generally have launched all its nukes by the time your missiles get there (to be shot down by the silo in air defence mode). So save your destructive power for the civilian population.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Byte: Frying chickens in the barnyard!

Now that my Battlefield 2142 review is safely out of the way (no sneak previews, sorry), I can get back to the serious business of mutually assured destruction in Defcon.

I'm seriously loving Defcon at the moment. I tried out a six player Diplomacy game on Wednesday night and had a fantastic time. Despite the minimalist presentation and the abstract, almost soulless manner in which the game reports casualties, the game really has a ruthless human element to it.

The experience of playing other people beats the pants off playing the AI, as the CPU players tend to be a little predictable. Diplomacy games are probably the game's highlight, as everyone starts off on the same side, shares radar information and knowledge of silo locations, etc, before things inevitably degenerate into a worldwide thermonuclear conflict. The action started in my game on Wednesday when one of the players dropped from the server to be replaced by an AI. So we kicked the AI out of the alliance and beat the hell out of it. Then we steadily identified the remaining human players that had the weakest defenses (or had committed most of their nukes already), kicked them out of the alliance as well, leaving a three versus three: Europe, Russia (me) and Asia, versus Africa plus North and South America.

Then the player for Asia dropped from the server, leaving 2 vs 2, with one CPU player out on a limb and the other assisting my alliance. I consulted with my European counterpart and suggested "Let's let the AI do our dirty work for a while", to which he readily agreed. Once the Asian CPU committed all its nukes, Europe and I kicked it from our alliance, and we began the process of cleaning up; after about two, two and a half hours into the game. Europe and I were way out in front, having only lost about 6 million people each, having kept our silos on air defence mode for the entire game up until that point, and having gotten all of our kills using bombers and our submarines. I made my move when I saw Europe switching its silos to launch mode to execute an all out attack on Africa and South America. I quickly switched all my silos to attack mode, quit my alliance and jumped on my former ally. His response in the chat channel was succinct: "Bastard"

Unfortunately for me, I jumped too quickly and didn't jump high enough. None of my nukes made it through to London or Paris, meaning that my callous betrayal was mostly in vain. Europe quickly counter-attacked with the couple of dozen nukes he had left in reserve, levelling Moscow and half of my other cities, dumping me from 1st to 4th place in the final five minutes of the game. Still, it was fun, and I definitely think it's still a valid (if cruel) tactic. I call it the Late Endgame Betrayal, and will be trying out the tactic again, certainly, along with another tactic I've come up with called the Super-Betrayal: this is where you wait until your allies are launching nukes, and then quickly switch to the other alliance to give them vital intelligence as to silo placement and which cities they should counter-attack. There's even scope for a Double Super-Betrayal, where you switch alliances twice very quickly to gain the maximum amount of intelligence, but that might be a little too Machiavellian to try out on most servers.

I've just been idly playing a 3 player/6 nation Genocide match (no alliances) in Office Mode (6 hour limit real-time) against the CPU while I work, and I've gotten the victory timer to kick in after less than two hours. It's pretty fair to say that I'm winning pretty comprehensively. I've only lost two silos from my inital ground-based assets, and nearly half of my fleet is still intact. My score is one and a half times that of the player in second place and almost double that of the two AI players put together. So watch out if you play me on a Genocide match. I think I might be getting a little bit good at this...

Final Stats:

Me - Kills: 252.2m, Deaths: 65.5m, Collateral: 0.6m, Survivors: 134.4m, Score: 251
CPU 1 - Kills: 99.8m, Deaths: 157.4m, Collateral: 0.6m, Survivors: 42.6m, Score: 99
CPU 2 - Kills: 37.2m, Deaths: 167.7m, Collateral: 0.2m, Survivors: 32.3m, Score: 36

And I still had 28 nukes left...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bark: A great paradox

As a Bachelor of Science (Physics with Space Science & Technology, University of Leicester, 1997), I find this story deeply distressing.

Byte: A 21st Century spectator sport

This is not good. I've barely had the game a day, and already I'm dreaming about it. Defcon, that is. I had my first online game last night and came second out of three players. So I lost, basically... but it was an educational experience. i.e. never play as Africa.

I'm learning quite a lot from spectating the game as well. The game I'm spectating at the moment is a one player vs 5 CPU free-for-all, and it's utterly fascinating. I'm picking up a few tips that I'm going to try out online in the coming weeks. Namely, not to commit your naval forces too soon, and to try to leave a little more distance between the coast of the country your nuking and your subs. Otherwise, they just get wiped out by bombers before they can unleash their payload. Not only that, there's quite a lot to be learnt from observing the way the CPU players set out their assets at the beginning of the game. Getting your silos to be mutually supportive in their air defence capability, but not so close together that they're all easily discovered and counter-nuked is quite a tricky proposition. Which probably explains why everyone likes playing as Europe so much (because it's a small, easily defensible territory) and also why everybody specifically goes after it (because once they start mass launching, it's very vulnerable to counter-attack).

Defcon might not be so healthy for my megalomania complex ("If I can't rule the world, I'll destroy it! Muhahahahahahahah!"), but it's certainly a great game - perhaps even a contender for my game of the year. And given that you can download the demo off Steam for free, yet still join games hosted by players with the full version, there's no excuse for not trying it. So try it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Byte: Everybody dies

No, I'm not being depressive again, I am, of course, referring to Defcon, which I recently downloaded off Steam.

I had a game against the CPU at lunch (and won, comprehensively), and it's quite an interesting little game. Oddly hypnotic, in fact. Compelling, even. I also spectated a couple of games this afternoon whilst working, and the sheer minimalism of the game's presentation really works beautifully. It's genuinely reminiscent of the big board in Wargames in look, and the soundtrack has a nice '80s synth feel to it as well.

It's one of those games that you can just sit back and watch, which is why it's so cool that Introversion put in a spectator mode. I can imagine myself watching more games than I play. Though I'm looking forward to trying it out online (and probably getting murdered).

The game's mechanically very simple, but there's typically so much going on that it's a real management test. You've got to get things right in the early stages of a game, when placing your bases and silos, otherwise you're really going to struggle in the end-game.

So if you see a server called "Armageddon Man", come and give me some nuclear loving. The name comes from a little known Spectrum game in a similar global nuclear war setting that I was addicted to in my early teens. On a similar theme, you may also find me on a server called "Armageddon outta here"...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Byte: It pleases me...

I'm just putting the finishing touches on my Supreme Commander preview piece for Games TM, and as I was just using Google to make sure I had the correct definition for an acronym, I was most pleased to discover that a Google search for "supreme commander acu" returns this blog as the first hit. I don't think that's ever happened to me before... I don't think I've ever done a Google search for something that's ever brought back one of my own pages first that wasn't an intentional ego search.

So hurrah for Google for unintentionally boosting my currently fragile ego.

In other news, Battlefield 2142 is 'meh'. You heard it here first.