Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bark: No! Not another one. Please... make the bad men stop.

It's quiz time again. Shamelessly cribbed from Gril.

I am:
Arthur C. Clarke
Well known for nonfiction science writing and for early promotion of the effort toward space travel, his fiction was often grand and visionary.


Which science fiction writer are you?



Quite a reassuring result, given that I want to actually finish a couple of sci-fi short stories I have planned out this year.

Bark: You couldn't make this shit up.

Remind me... Which century are we living in?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bark: Bizarre dreams

Been having very strange dreams lately. I've been running off a lot less sleep than usual, because of the work pressures over the last ten days or so (this is the ninth consequetive day that I've worked, for a total of something approaching 90 hours and counting) and this has definitely had a knock-on effect to my dreams.

Last night the theme was two-fold. I was driving down an American-style highway in my car; wide, straight roads, very little other traffic. So for some reason I actually climb into the back seat to have a little nap as I was bombing along the carriageway at 60-odd miles per hour. All was hunky-dory for a while, and I got up just before entering a town. So I try to clamber back into the unoccupied driving seat as the traffic starts to build up and the town approaches. As I try to squeeze back through the gap over the handbrake and gear stick, I get stuck between the two seats and start panicking as the traffic gets thicker and thicker around me, with the car careering out of control, and me powerless to do anything about it. The dream stops before the seemingly inevitable crash.

Change of theme. Suddenly I'm in Zangarmarsh from The Burning Crusade. Not one of my WoW characters, but actually me. And I'm controlling myself around the environment as I would one of my character avatars. Clicking on an interface laid over my dream's point of view, accessing my character screen (I have quite a good Intellect score, apparently) and inventory as I would normally through playing the game. And then I bash the hell out an Undead Warlock in Dire Bear form... Crazy.

Byte: 0_o

This Second Life stuff is just getting silly now.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Bark: *GRRRRRRAAWWLLLLLLLLLL*

This week has sucked like a Dyson. I've *averaged* eleven hours a day at work this week, which is not ideal. Especially when you can't even claim the overtime. And it's even worse when the stuff you're trying to develop has a wandering specification. It's like playing football where the goalposts are on an airport travelator. It's not just that they keep moving, it's that they were never in a fixed position to begin with.

I've even had to put in around 15 hours this weekend, including on Saturday, despite the fact it was my 31st birthday. Still, at least it's all over now and I can get back to enjoying what's left of the weekend.

Oh.

I suppose I should go to bed now, so I can get up and go to work in another seven hours. Fuck's sake... I'd do some primal scream therapy, but I'd only get arrested for waking the neighbours.

*sighs*

Friday, January 19, 2007

Byte: Life Begins at Level 60

Life begins at 60

w00t! Only *half a million* XP to my next level!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bark: Ride of the Valkyries

Absolutely amazing story on BBC News.

I am officially in awe.

Byte: Outlander

World of Warcraft may very well be the best game ever made. That last sentence shouldn't just be construed to be my opinion, but possibly a simple statement of fact.

After putting over SEVENTEEN DAYS of playing time (that's over 400 hours, mathematics fans!) into a game, it would be easy to get bored, jaded and think "why on Earth am I still paying £8.99 a month for the privilege of playing this?" Less World of Warcraft, more World of Snorecraft. Well, last night I had a solid few hours on the Outland. Oh my, it's fantastic.

With the opening of the Dark Portal, the whole atmosphere of the game has changed. From a server full of fractious, bored and opportunistic gankers, the addition of new content has gotten everyone excited again; even to the point where I was being helped by Horde players when I was being hounded by several mobs I couldn't deal with myself. Within three hours, I'd gained another level (just one short of the magic 60 now!) and gotten some frankly awesome quest rewards and a Rare drop - a pair of Gloves of Ferocity. It's genuinely akin to playing the game for the first time again - an experience I'm sure most players had forgotten and would have given their right arms for to relive that sense of excitement and wonder at experiences something genuinely new and amazing.

I was already seeing people at level 61 last night - having pulled an all-nighter from the previous evening, no doubt - but with the way you accrue experience for completing quests (the first dozen or so you can solo, even at level 58) means that I'll be joining their ranks soon. Put it this way, I'll be shocked if I'm not level 60 by the end of the week. I'm already a quarter of the way there, after only an hour's play from gaining level 59... Boy, I'm looking forward to the next few weeks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Byte: The Gank Portal

The Dark Portal officially opened last night at around 11pm GMT, giving me a little over an hour last night in Outland before I had to head for bed. It turned out to be quite an occasion, as pretty much everyone level 58 and above that had the expansion already installed (and a few more besides) turned up for the grand opening.

Picture the scene: Over 100 Level 58-60 players packed into the crater around the Dark Portal in Blasted Lands, battering the hell out of each other in PvP while they waited. The lag was apocalyptic. I was set upon by a pair of Level 60 Horde Warlocks and had absolutely no hope of defending myself, as the lag meant I could move, but couldn't cast spells. I kid you not, it took the server nearly five minutes to cotton on to the fact that I was dead. Another five minutes (and two server crashes and restarts) later, and things calmed down enough for people to actually pile through the portal. Thanks to getting ganked and having to ress, I missed the battle with an absolutely massive elite demon waiting on the other side of the portal, though I did at least get a couple of screenshots of its immense carcass. I may post screenies on Flickr later, assuming I'm not too busy raiding one of the new instances...

In short - WoW just got reborn, bigger and stronger than ever before.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bark: Videogaming claims another victim...

Though not quite in the way you might expect.

A very curious (and sad) story on BBC News about a California woman who died after a "Hold your wee for a Wii" contest on US radio. Cause of death? Water intoxication. Which, when reading about it on Wikipedia, seems like a very unpleasant way to die. Not that I'm implying that there are *pleasant* ways to die (well, having a heart attack in the middle of a cocaine-fuelled orgy with five blonde porn stars might be a nice way to go...), but you know what I mean. And all for the sake of a $250 dollar games console. I don't know what's more tragic - that someone would risk literally drinking themselves to death for the sake of something (ultimately) so meaningless, or that the radio station officials didn't take adequate enough precautions to prevent it from happening.

Byte: I'm on top of the world!

I discovered something rather amusing late last night - the photo I posted on Flickr of Shareth in her Tabard of the Protector is now the first link on Google if you do a string search for "Tabard of the Protector". Which is rather cool - I'm even scoring higher than Thottbot (for the moment), so my Flickr account is getting rather more hits than usual. [Edit: Well, it *was* at the time of writing - I shouldn't have uploaded that last batch of screenshots, as I've now plunged unceremoniously off the rankings - not even in the top 10 pages now] This pleases me. And that screenshot is now the most popular photo on my Flickr account by quite a substantial margin; and it's only been up for two days!

I've got a few more WoW screenies that will go up on Flickr over the next few days. Most notably one of Highlord Kruul - one of The Burning Crusade's world bosses - rampaging around Everlook with two gigantic infernal elementals in tow. Azeroth is a rather cool place to be at the moment. I should get my Burning Crusade code in the next day or two - and I can't wait. Shareth hit level 58 last night, meaning that she can venture into the Outland as soon as I get it installed. At the moment, if you try and access Burning Crusade content without having it installed, you simply get teleported to the nearest graveyard. Which is quite funny, really. Trying to tell us something there, Blizzard?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Byte: The Crusade starts early

WoW players got a bit of a treat last night. Now that the final patch for the Burning Crusade has been uploaded to the servers, the Dark Portal to Outland has opened in the Blasted Lands and for most of the evening Level 60 Felguard demons came pouring out of it. Cue an insane rush by pretty much every player with a character over level 55 to head over to the portal to engage in a battle royale with the demons (the reward being a very cool 'Tabard of the Protector' from the Argent Dawn - I'll try and post a screenshot tonight of Shareth posing in her's), while trying not to get ganked by players from the opposing faction in the melee. Predictably, there were skeletons of dead players EVERYWHERE. Oh, the humanity!

I'm not normally on the servers when this kind of thing happens, so it was nice to take a little time out from my relentless pursuit of experience points in order to get Shareth ready for The Burning Crusade. I'm only about 40,000XP short of level 57, which means if I really plug in time over the weekend, I stand a good chance of hitting 58, which will mean I can access Outland pretty much from day one.

I'm getting mildly excited about the whole thing, now. Well, that's an understatement, because I've been having the most awesome WoW dreams - in character. With shapeshifts to Dire Bear form and Cat form, and everything. Quite surreal, really. Speaking of Cat form, Shareth is goddamn lethal now - the free re-spec allowed me to get the Mangle talent, which is absolutely evil. I've gone for agility bonuses on my Feral armour kit, meaning that my critical chance percentage is over 26%; so using Mangle (getting a critical hit or two) I was taking down level 58 mobs in half a dozen hits last night. I hope they don't nerf the talent in a subsequent patch, because it's brilliant...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Byte: The Best (and Worst) Buys of 2006

I was debating whether to do another all-round review of the year, like I did with last year's Bark and Byte awards, but I decided that the news was just too depressing, so I'm going to concentrate on the fun stuff.

So, in reverse order, my favourite five games from 2006:

5) GTR 2 - Simbin (PC)
The ultimate PC driving sim. A fabulous graphics and physics engine, oodles of unlockable content and some wonderfully vicious AI. There's no need to feel nostalgic for Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix series anymore, because this is better.

4) Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Capcom (Nintendo DS)

I may have stuck more hours in on Animal Crossing: Wild World this year, but in terms of making my 2006 shortlist, this is probably my favourite DS game. The script is just so good. It makes all the right references ("For great justice!") and is consistently entertaining and nicely paced. The investigative puzzling bits aren't a chore and the court room scenes are brilliant, twisting and turning like an episode of LA Law. Anything that can get me playing an adventure game (probably my least favourite game genre) and like it has got to be worth your money.

3) Company of Heroes - Relic (PC)

This would rate higher, but I'm not a huge RTS fan. Which is a shame, since I probably reviewed more RTS games this year than any other genre. This is, however, without any doubt whatsoever, the peak of the RTS genre. Visceral, compelling and adrenalin-charged, this is World War II RTS like you've never seen it before. It's essentially Dawn of War with Nazis. Brilliant stuff.

2) DEFCON - Introversion (PC)

I didn't get to review this one for Pro-G, but Andy nails it spot on. Easily the best value game of the year and almost the outright winner. I've already talked at length about DEFCON's virtues, so I won't retread too much ground here. Thermonuclear genocide as a spectator sport. Hypnotically good. I still watch games as a screensaver on my games PC when I'm working from home.

1) Wii Sports - Nintendo (Wii)

Well, my Number One had to be a Wii didn't it? Unfortunately, I haven't acquired a copy of Zelda yet, otherwise this may have been a Wii Number One and Number Two - (though this is surely a contradiction in terms, no? - Scatalogical Ed)

It's interesting to see how many websites have been giving it lowish scores (around the 6/10 mark), only for it to turn up on their Top Games of the Year lists... Yes, the game may be slight on content, but it's all about the replay value and the interface. This is my game of the year purely for the Bowling. It's hideously addictive and an absolutely perfect use of the controller. The game just feels so *right*. The clatter of flying pins... twisting the controller to put spin on the ball to reach those pins tucked away in the back corners of the lane... the way your bowling ball gets decorated with stars when you reach Pro skill level... nailing your fifth strike in a row on the way to a 220 point game... Pure gaming joy. This is what the Wii is all about. Let's hope Nintendo can give us games that use the controller so beautifully this year as well.

Now, the Walk of Shame...

I didn't play that many stinkers this year (mainly because I was quite picky about what I got to review), but there were a few standouts for badness.

3) Neverwinter Nights 2

A big disappointment. The spiritual successor to Knights of the Old Republic 2. Lots of potential, but it shows that they rushed it out. While not outright unplayable, it still had far too many bugs and made my PC want to weep at the inexplicably high technical demands placed on it. It doesn't even look as good as KOTOR or Oblivion, but it sure ran a lot worse. And weasels with waraxes. The prosecution rests.

2) Star Wars: Empire At War - LucasArts/Activision (PC)

I summed this one up nicely in the comments thread to my review: Lazy, unambitious shite. As a strategy game it's soundly trumped by a game ten years its senior (Star Wars: Supremacy) and as a videogame it's designed to be watched rather than played. Why else would they have put so much effort into the cinematic camera? One wishes they'd put the same amount of effort into the game mechanics.

1) Battlefield 2142 - EA (PC)

Unfortunately, I can't (or rather, won't) link to a review of this, because I pretty much disagree with them all. Especially the one that said: "This is essentially a $50 mod of Battlefield 2. 90%" Muh?? What I was given to review was an unplayable mess. A rewarming of Battlefield 2 in malfunctioning techno-trousers. I can imagine that on a supercomputer with a quad core, an SLI graphics setup and 4GB of RAM it might approach being passably playable, but regardless still wouldn't surpass a decent game of Battlefield 2. (Which I do like, incidentally) This game embodies *everything* that's wrong about the way EA produce games. And let's not even get started on the in-game advertising. Oh, my immersion! Oh, my framerate! Of course, you've probably all bought it by now, but that's your fault for not listening to me...

Honourable mentions that would have made a Top 10, if I could have been bothered to write one: LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Rayman Raving Rabbids, Animal Crossing: Wild World, Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars and Galactic Civilizations 2.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bark/Byte: Monday is the cruellest day

I got Shareth up to Level 55 this weekend, which was quite impressive, since I'd only just hit level 53 before my subscription expired in November. So gaining two full levels in the space of a week is either a testament to my ability to gain XP quickly, or a testament to my girlfriend spending most of the weekend in bed due to a cold...

So I wasn't really in the mood to come into work this morning, especially with the Monday morning rush hour in full gridlock mode on the Hogsback into Guildford (which I have to take to get onto the A3 down to Portsmouth). It took me half an hour to travel the twelve miles from the Sainsburys petrol station at Watchmoor Park (down the back of Camberley way) to get to the A3. Not a very impressive start to the week. And when I finally got to North Harbour, I had to pull over to let a fire engine past. I sneakingly thought, "wouldn't it be funny if the office was on fire..." and duly the fire engine pulled into the road down to the office infront of me.

Sadly, it wasn't the office that was aflame, but someone's car smoking spectacularly in the car park. I say "sadly", but I was laughing like a drain. It just goes to show how like one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, one man's tragedy is another man's comedy. I didn't see what make the car was, but I hope it was something suitably expensive.... Preferably a BMW or a Merc. Still, it made my morning. Yes, I know... I'm a bad, bad person.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bark/Byte: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that jazz

Well, another new year beckons, and it looks like 2007 is going to be pretty much the same mix of CHILD DEATH, TERRORISM, INVASION, WAR and all that good stuff that was packed into 2006. And 2006's parting shot came as no great surprise. It takes quite a lot to get me to agree with The Vatican, but while I in no way condone the way Saddam Hussein ran Iraq, executing him for his undeniable crimes was a really fucking stupid thing to do. Not only on the grounds that there have been serious reservations about the impartiality of the court he was tried in (did anyone think that there was even the *slightest* possibility that he could have been found not guilty?), but the use of the death penalty is an immediate surrendering of the moral high ground. By killing a killer (even a mass murderer), you're bringing your whole system of justice down to their level. And Saddam Hussein dead is more dangerous than he was alive - because now you've got Shias gloating to Sunnis about his execution and Sunnis seeing him as a martyr. The violence in Iraq is only going to get worse (in the short to medium term) and you're just setting up a country already teetering on the edge for a full-scale sectarian war. So a big "well done" to everyone concerned. YOU FUCKING MUPPETS.

*sighs*

Okay, New Year... let's try to be positive...

At least I had a good holiday - mainly through eating very good food, drinking very good wine and trying to avoid as much of the news as possible. I also did some character sketching for a Forgotten Realms-based short story I want to write, read Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (which I enjoyed a heck of a lot more than Consider Phlebas) and otherwise did a lot of very little, plus caught up on quite a lot of sleep. We didn't get any snow, which was a shame, but Alsace was it's usual charming self and as ever, the vin chaud was rather delicious. I also met two new (and rather cute) cats, photos of which will be going on Flickr as soon as I can be bothered to download the photos to my PC.

New Year's Eve was spent at a house party held by a neighbour of our friends in Essex (Flo and Alex), where I occupied myself for most of the evening dealing Blackjack (the party had a "Casino Royale" theme) to people who were mainly drunk and didn't know the rules. So not much change from when I was working at Napoleon's in Sheffield really. Except that at least we weren't playing for real money and I could get drunk too. Paul (the chap who threw the party) was a bit flabbergasted to find out that I was actually an ex-croupier, so I think I'll be getting invited back next year to run the card table again. I'll have to take my blackjack shoe so we can have a proper 4 deck game. Though given that I was hammering everyone so badly on a 2 deck game (three blackjacks in a row at one point had people thinking I was pulling cards from my sleeves), people might not thank me for an even more authentic casino experience...

I picked up just one new game over Christmas and the New Year - SimBin's RACE (a World Touring Car Championship simulator) from Steam. It's not quite as good as GTR 2. The graphics engine isn't quite as sweet as GTR 2's - I've had quite a few rendering problems, especially at the Macau circuit and even in the menus, where parts of the interface keep disappearing when you're using the 1987 WTCC series cars. Hopefully these will get fixed in patches, but it's a little disappointing considering that the GTR 2 engine was so solid and smooth. At least the cars themselves are great to drive. Since they top out under 300bhp, they're a lot easier to control than the GT cars and are lots of fun to pitch into corners and powerslide around, as the handling is a lot more forgiving than in GTR 2. To get the best out of the game, you really need to drive using a manual gearbox, as the automatic gear change seems to be a little erratic with the timing of when it switches gears. If you want to make serious in-roads beyond Semi-Pro, you really need a steering wheel, and don't expect to be breaking any lap records in the Driver Duel mode without one, either, unless you're very, very good at setting up the car. The closest I can get to a lap record at the moment with my Xbox pad is within 4 seconds of Gabriele Tarquini's pole lap at Brno (probably my favourite track in the game), but I haven't quite finished with tuning my string and damper settings yet. Macau is a killer - I'm nearly 10 seconds off the pace there, and with the track being so long, it's a real bitch to get a good setup - I'm losing so much time in the corners at the moment. More experimentation required, methinks...

I also renewed my WoW subscription last night, where the first half of an hour of the evening was spent installing the 697MB patch that had pre-loaded in November just before my previous subscription expired. Then I had to re-spec my Druid, as Blizzard have tinkered with all the talents for the class. I decided to stick with the Feral kit, as it's so much better for soloing and PVP than the other kits. I've still got 100,000XP to go until my next level (54) so the chances of me hitting the cap before the expansion comes out are exactly zero. Fingers crossed I'll be able to get up to around level 55 so that I can at least go to Outland in relative safety. I spent most of last night exploring the Western Plaguelands and taking advantage of the newly expanded quest limit to take on a few more quests, so I can divide my time between Un'goro and Western Plaguelands. I particularly liked the Christmas content. I picked up some presents in Ironforge, one of which turns your mount into a red-nosed reindeer, which even Fleur thought was pretty funny. Only two weeks until Burning Crusade comes out - when I'm faced with a decision as to whether to really push Shareth to level 60 and beyond, or start off with a Blood Elf on another server. Knowing me, I'll probably do a bit of both. Add to this that there should be more games I want coming out on the Wii over the next few months, I think Shareth's going to be pretty lucky to hit level 60 by this time next year... still, as I keep telling myself, it's more about enjoying the journey than reaching the destination.

I'll save the inevitable and obligatory "Best and worst of 2006" post for another time - the disadvantage of not being on holiday anymore means that I actually have to do work again...