Friday, August 31, 2007

Bark: The New Engrish

Don't break the law in China. Or you'll be eaten by lions.

Bark: Rock, Paper, Scissor - The Next Generation

Via UberReview.

Byte: Dammit.

I lost The Game...

Bark: D'oh, Selecta

Hell hath no fury like an IT Worker deprived of their chilled chocolatey treats.

Okay, it might not be quite as pithy as the actual (mis)quote, but it's true nonetheless. The vending machine nearest to my desk at work has been broken now for a month. Now that's what I call out of order...

It's become such a ridiculous situation now that some wag in the office (and I emphasize that it's not me) has taped a sweepstake to the front of the machine asking people to lay bets on just how much of the stock will be past its Best Before date by the time the machine is finally fixed.

This hilarity is scant consolation for the fact that if you want to buy a Double Decker after the canteen has closed (and I stopped buying things from the canteen because identical items from the vending machines were cheaper - how does that one work, I wonder?), you have to walk the length of the entire building to get to the one remaining vending machine I have access to in the building (some sections are secured, due to the nature of the work being done). So while this may theoretically be more healthy for you (as you burn more calories on the round trip to and from your desk) if you're eating chocolate in the middle of the day, you're not hugely concerned about the health benefits of exercise.

I'm taking the view that I'm going to stop using the vending machines altogether, and have bought a bottle of water that I simply refill from the water cooler. I doubt it will help me lose weight, as I expect I will get the calories elsewhere (probably via something alcohol-related in the evenings), but at least I get the feelgood factor of not giving money to a company that appears that it doesn't give a damn about its customers; while chilled water may be more boring than Pepsi Max, it is free...

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Byte: The Father of the Internet Speaks

"When you have a problem in the mirror you do not fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror."

Too bloody right. Unfortunately, politicians know it's easier to fix the mirror, because that's a whole lot quicker, cheaper and gives them the illusion of looking remotely competent...

Bark: Insecurity Measures

This is just brilliant.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Byte: Strategic withdrawl symptoms

I'm listening to The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack at work, and suddenly I'm having the almost uncontrollable urge to replay Star Wars: Supremacy...

Bark: Murphy's Laws of Car Ownership #1-#6

  1. By the time you finish all the monthly repayments on your car loan, your car will be worth roughly one quarter of what you have paid for it.

  2. Once you finish all the monthly repayments on your car loan, things will start to break.

  3. Things will always break at the most inconvenient time and place. (Usually Friday night rush hour at the busiest junction in town)

  4. Things will start to break as soon as their warranty has expired. This rule applies doubly if you have taken out an extended warranty.

  5. The validity of your warranty is dependent upon having services performed by the franchise dealer you bought the car from.

  6. Service costs at the franchise dealership will be at least twice that of your local garage for the same parts and labour.

I actually had a fairly painless visit to the garage early this morning to fix a minor problem with my screenwash system - £25 all in, I only had to wait 40 minutes, had free wireless internet access, and they even gave the car a full wash and vacuum. It's the only reason I still take it to the dealership - they always wash the car...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bark: Jurassic Park 4: Deinonychus Goes Postal

I said I'd draw a Deinonychus with an MP5...

More of my dinosaur sketches can be found here.

Byte: The D.P. Gumby School of C++ Programming

Signs that you've been looking at screens of C++ code for too long #1: You keep reading "union" as "onion".


Byte: C++

brain = reinterpret_cast<void>(mush);

Some coding smartass is probably going to tell me now that this is wrong and you can't use a reinterpret_cast like that... But that kind of defeats the purpose of the gag.

So go away and leave me to my debugging misery...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bark: I could use a little encouragement...

Sometimes I really don't understand my girlfriend. We've been going out nearly twelve years, and been living together for just over six, yet there are still moments that make me want to scratch my head in sheer bewilderment.

I know I'm not a particularly easy person to live with, being a sociopathic videogames addict with a predilection for late nights and large quantities of alcohol, so I've been trying to develop my creative and artistic faculties for about the last year or so (because, as we all know, chicks dig artists) - sketching again, writing the odd bits of fiction (which I can sadly never get around to finishing, thanks to my short attention sp... oooh, shiny things!) and the like - my latest project being composing music; just for the sheer hell of seeing if I can do it.

Now, I'm not hugely musically inclined. I can't sing, play any instruments, and it was one of my least favourite classes at school, but if there was one thing I was good at in music lessons (and we're going back nearly 18 years now), it was understanding melody and reading sheet music. So I do a bit of hunting for a bit of PC freeware that will allow me write sheet music and hear back the score in something approximating proper sound, download it and have a bit of an experiment.

I haven't written music for nearly two decades, so I start off with a really simple piano solo in C-minor and 4/4 time, using a very basic repeating 4 note bass line, and a recurring eight bar melody, which is being moved up or down a semi-octave on each repeat (for 4 sets of the melody). Okay, so it's not going to win any Grammy Awards, certainly, but I think it's a perfectly serviceable melody - for a first attempt, at least.

So I play it back for Fleur and she wrinkles her face up like I've just given her a decomposing rat for dinner and says. "It's boring... Have you listened to any Schubert? I think you really should."


That's me, being flabbergasted.


I'm not quite sure how to take this. Is she expecting me to write better melodies than classical composers WHO DEVOTED THEIR WHOLE LIVES TO MUSIC after playing about with a freeware music program on my laptop for an hour? I mean, I know I have the same birthday as Mozart, but isn't that kind of expectation level a little bit high?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Byte: No wonder they all went postal

Am I the only one who finds the "Circus of Value" Vending Machines in BioShock THE MOST ANNOYING THINGS EVER? That tune. That idiotic tinny clown laughter... It makes me want to kill small children. And in the game.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Byte: BioCrock

Good old When I got home from work today I found my copy of BioShock waiting for me behind the door. As you might expect, I rushed off to install it and start playing, being pleasantly surprised that the authentication servers for the UK were already up and running, but mildly annoyed that the install takes a good fifteen or twenty minutes. And I'm hardly running on an abacus here...

After it (finally) installed, I spent a couple of hours getting into the game. It's at this point I should say that the post title is a little disingenuous. It's not a crock. Not by any means. In fact, it's easily one of the best games I've played since Half-Life 2. But there are a few things that are irking me - and since you're unlikely to read about these things in a magazine or website review, I feel duty-bound as an increasingly infrequent freelance games journalist to tell you about them... and I admit, I chose the post title just to annoy all the BioShock-lovers at Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Annoyance Number 1: Genetic Engineering is no problem, but they can't invent a decent light bulb - what is it with modern sci-fi FPS games and darkness? I'm sure I've missed picking up a lot of items and ammo, simply because the game is too goddamned dark. Not only that, but the Thief 3-style "loot glint" often doesn't work beyond a distance of a couple of in-game feet, rendering it somewhat impotent, if not quite entirely useless.

Annoyance Number 2: Corpses should not be giving me a Royal Wave for five minutes - the physics in the game appears to be highly suspect. Waving corpses are just the start. Objects flying into the air when you walk into them, weapons falling out of people's dead hands and flying unrealistically across the room... not quite on a par with the randomness of Soldner or Boiling Point, but still eyebrow-raising stuff.

Annoyance Number 3: Hacking computers is NOTHING like playing Pipemania - except in BioShock. I don't know whose idea this was, to turn hacking into a Pipemania mini-game, but they need kneecapping. Pipemania is RUBBISH. Even worse, it's not even skill related. From what I've seen so far, the tiles on each specific hackable object (be it a turret or a vending machine) are fixed - they're not randomised between attempts, which while it makes sense if you're using the pipes to represent electric circuits, completely render the whole puzzle element superfluous thanks to your ability to quicksave and reload.

Annoyance Number 4: You are effectively immortal - the whole point of playing an FPS is to get a thrill from balancing your need for an adrenalin fix with your vulnerability as a game character. The resurrection pods in BioShock, however, eliminate this balance, because death has no more a consequence than in an MMORPG like World of Warcraft. The only thing you lose is the time take retracing your steps from the Vita-Chambers to the place where you died. It almost defeats the entire object of an FPS game - even more so than a quicksave/reload - and eliminates any illusion of tension and risk. A very curious design choice, and not one I would have made.

Annoyance Number 5: System Shock 2 respawns - what has it been? Eight, nine years? Yet still Irrational are giving us infinitely respawning enemies. Admittedly, here it's been implemented with a whole lot more subtlety, but I still had one encounter where I was looting medical supplies and tonics from a dentist's surgery and I turned around to find a splicer standing in the space I'd occupied not three seconds beforehand. And you could tell he had just spawned, because the AI routines hadn't kicked in yet - even though he was no more than two feet away and staring directly at me, I still managed to shoot him in the face with a shotgun before the AI algorithm had decided what it was going to do.

Annoyance Number 6: You create an intellectual meritocratic society, but you fail to ban guns - Suspension. Of. Disbelief. Crumbling. Seriously. Vending machines where you can buy ammunition. That's just a disaster waiting to happen, surely.

None of these gripes are deal-breakers, but still, they are annoying considering how good the rest of the game is. I don't want to give out spoilers, so I'm trying to be careful about what I say about the game - but so far, I'm really impressed. The game does a great job of setting the scene initially. The reveal of Rapture in the bathysphere is nothing short of breathtaking, and your first encounter with a Little Sister and Big Daddy is stupendously cool. They've also put a phenomenal amount of effort into the water effects. Stand under a stream of falling water and you'll see what I mean. The light and image distortion effects are absolutely brilliant. In fact, the whole design aesthetic is amazing.

Based on my initial impressions, this is definitely Game of the Year material (WoW: Burning Crusade not withstanding) - I'm not sure it's a 95% or 10/10 game; yet. A 9/10 game, certainly. Time will tell whether it's got the potential to surpass Deus Ex in my affections as an FPS/RPG hybrid. Still, I'm looking forward to playing it more and finding out. But that can wait until the morning.

"I'm ready for dream-time, Mr. Bubbles..."

Byte: An ethical dilemma?

Quite a nice article about wireless network theft on BBC News.

I don't think it's any real ethical dilemma, though. To be blunt, if you're still using an unsecured wireless network at home, you are either a) lazy, b) ignorant, c) a moron or d) all of these things, and you deserve to be stolen from.

If you're going to put a wireless network in your house or flat, learn how they fucking work FIRST. You wouldn't buy a car without knowledge of how to drive it, or refill the petrol tank, so why do people buy computers or routers without knowing how to use important aspects of their functionality? See option d) above.

The guy with the unsecured wireless network in my block of flats, however, needn't worry about anyone stealing bandwidth from his ISP. I'm going to hack his router and put on some lovely WPA encryption. Who knows, I might even give him the key too. Though I'm more likely to just change the network SSID to "TRYTHEFACTORYRESETSWITCHYOUMORON" and see how long it takes for him to figure it out...

Bark: Surely grounds for divorce

"A woman from Cwmbran, Torfaen took out a bank loan and lived on beans on toast for a year to pay £1,800 in vet bills after her pet chicken injured its leg."
£1,800? I don't spend that much on my computer... Hell, that's more than I spent on my first CAR.

"Lily was also diagnosed with depression but has now recovered, said Mrs Mills. The chicken's gloominess was thought to have been brought on by being in the house alone while Mrs Mills and her husband Sam were out at work."

How do you diagnose a chicken with depression, exactly? It's a CHICKEN. It should be cock-a-hoop (excuse the pun) that it's not being SLAUGHTERED AND EATEN.
"The couple have taught one-legged Lily party tricks like keeping her balance as she stands on Mrs Mills' head."
Gosh, their parties must be absolute RIOTS...

Bark: The walls have ears

I was just doing some template maintenance, adding my friend Mark to my Favourite People list (on the grounds that he's one of the few people on my MSN list who will start unsolicited conversations with me), when I noticed he'd posted a transcript of an MSN conversation we had a few months back about the great Manhunt 2 furore.

Reading it back now is quite interesting - I'm amazed I was that coherent on a Friday afternoon after a solid week of application testing... must have been one of my good days. We wander off-topic a few times, but it's one of the more memorable MSN conversations I've had recently. I am, however, hoping that extracts from it aren't splashed all over Bash...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Bark: Why we're all doomed

Abandon all hope ye that enter here...

The First World countries don't need to bother cutting their carbon emissions, because they can just pay Third World countries to do it for them. Apparently. And this isn't an industrialist or George W. Bush saying this, but the UN. The head of the Climate Change committee, no less.

I'm staggered. I really am - I thought the UN was the Babylon 5 of our time - our last, best hope for saving the planet. But to come out with this kind of statement just beggars belief. It's like all the car manufacturers and power generation companies saying "We kill the planet less quickly than our competition! Buy our shit! Feel less guilty!" in their adverts. This isn't a problem we can buy our way out of - not unless we throw a couple of hundred billion quid at Nuclear Fusion reactor research, anyway. Which is never going to happen.

I think I'm going to have to get drunk tonight. Again. It's the only thing stopping me from just hiding in a corner and softly weeping in the dark. I need to find some why of transferring my consciousness to some indestructible form of matter and then fire myself off into space in the vain hope I might find a planet that isn't full of imbeciles.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Byte: UFO Enemy Unknown game exploits

Just spotted this keyword showing up on my traffic analytics for today... I guess with the game getting into the Top 10 of this year's PC Gamer Top 100, there's been a bit of a resurgence in interest in the game. This pleases me. It pleases me so much that I shall actually give you the benefit of my experience and tell you about my favourite exploits within the game.

I found these exploits by accident when I playing the game avidly in the 90's and have subsequently utilised them ruthlessly. I don't consider them cheating in the way that reloading a tactical mission if you lose one of your best soldiers is cheating - I think of them more as "game features". Bugs, in other words.

The first exploit is by far the most useful in the early game. If you transfer an Interceptor (or other aircraft) from one base to another and sortie it immediately after it arrives at the base, it will be airborne with 0% fuel. In effect, it will never run out of fuel (because it had none to begin with) so you can keep it in the air on a combat patrol indefinitely - or at least until it runs out of ammunition. This makes it a good strategy to research Plasma Cannons as quickly as possible, because then you can keep your Interceptors in the air continuously, which is great if you're having a problem with an area that's not near one of your bases. Just remember to put them back on patrol once you've shot down a UFO so that they don't return to base and refuel.

The next exploit is useful throughout the whole game. On the tactical map, you can use the selection cursor to explore the dark areas of the map to give you a clue of where the aliens might be. The cursor will be occulted by objects on the map, so it's particularly good for finding out which building an unseen alien is in by running the cursor along the lines of the internal walls if you hear a door opening. It's also quite handy to check whether the power sources of UFOs are intact or not, so you're not overly judicious with the use of a Blaster Launcher, for example...

But by far the best exploit in the entire game is The Great Intra-Base Personnel Transfer Swindle. You only get charged the salaries of your soldiers, engineers and scientists at midnight on the 1st of every month. So if they happen to be in transit from one base to another as the month turns and you get the end of month report, you don't pay their salaries... This also works with aircraft as well, but that's not quite as useful, as you don't want craft to be out of use for a day or more as they're transferred. But it's great for engineers and scientists. As long as you leave a solitary scientist or engineer on the project they are working on, you don't lose any of your progress. So I used to have three or four separate research teams of at least 100 scientists of each, and I'd only end up paying a single scientist's salary at each base with laboratories, since I'd put all the rest onto planes at 23:00 on the last day of each month and send them off to another base. The transfer costs are a fraction of the salary cost, so you can literally save millions of dollars a month. Having 500 scientists but only paying for 4 or 5 each month means that you whittle your way through the research tree pretty darned quickly without bankrupting yourself. A very handy strategy in the middle to end game where your expenses would otherwise dwarf your income.

Bark: This Week in Weird News

The story about Jurassic Park 4 reportedly going to feature dinosaurs with guns is only one of the weirdly wonderful things that caught my eye this week.

Practically the first thing I saw on BBC News when I got to work on Monday was this:
"A woman in Australia has been killed by her pet camel after the animal may have tried to have sex with her."

I mean, what a way to go. Being smothered by an amorous camel. Doesn't bear thinking about, really.

Next up is this wonderfully batty story:
"In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission."

You can just picture the scene. A Tibetian monk is on his death bed, and a Chinese Government Official walks in saying - "Remember now, if you reincarnate without our permission we'll put you in jail."

It wouldn't be a post about weird news without an Ananova special:
"Two Swiss students on holiday played frisbee with an object they found on a beach unaware it was a live land mine."
It beggars belief that you can play frisbee with a 6kg land mine (I don't imagine you've be able to throw it very far), but even that pales in comparison to the story of some Floridian handing in a surface-to-air missile launcher during a gun amnesty.
"I didn't know what to do with it, so I brought it here. I took it to three dumps to try to get rid of it and they told me to get lost."
Well, duh! Most recycling centres don't deal with high explosives...

But my favourite thing this week is the story about Third Reich board games being put up for auction later in the month.
"The games include Bombers Over England, a form of bagatelle or primitive pinball where players score points for "bombing" British cities, shipping or lighthouses.

Another, based on Snakes and Ladders, sees players take their U-boats from a German port to the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow, sink British warships and try to make it back home.

Another is a game where players drop weighted paratroopers onto a representation of the English countryside."
I must be broken, because I really want to try playing them...

Bark: Oh, please, let it be true.

I stumble upon this, via Dinosaur Comics.

Dinosaurs + Guns = Cinematic Apocalypse.

I'm going to draw a Deinonychus with an MP5 tonight and hopefully Universal will sign me up to do the storyboarding...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Byte: PCG Top 100

I got my subs copy of the latest issue of PC Gamer a couple of days ago. It's a good 'un. Not least for Tom Francis's splendid Bioshock review (thankfully spoiler-free), which has suitably reassured me that I made the right decision in pre-ordering it.

What's most likely to catch most peoples's eyes as they skip through the mag in WH Smiths, however, is the annual bun-fight that is the PCG Top 100. I actually agree with the Number One this year (World of Warcraft) and it's also reassuring to know that I've played all of the Top 10, even if I don't quite agree with some of the games that are in it. All in all, I've got sixteen games of the Top 20, 36 in the Top 50 and 56 of the Top 100, so I think I'm doing pretty well. A lot of the gap (particularly in the 51-100 bracket) can be put down to games being in genres I don't get on with (RTS and Adventure, most notably), with the rest being either just too obscure or games I simply don't rate or have absolutely no interest in.

I was particularly pleased to see the inclusion of UFO: Enemy Unknown in the Top 10, though I was surprised to see Deus Ex sneak above Half-Life 2 into second place. Is there an unwritten rule in the PCG Top 100 that Deus Ex must *always* be Number 2, regardless of what is Number 1? I'm seriously beginning to think there is, you know...

Fortunately, I don't have to obey such rules when compiling my list of top PC games. I'm not going to give you a Top 100, because you can take lists too far - besides, a Top 100 would give you a list of half the PC games I own, which hardly narrows things down from a quality perspective. So here's my (current) Top 10.

1) World Of Warcraft - This belongs at the top not just for the number of hours I've played it, but because for me at least, it really does go beyond being a simple game. It's a refuge, a home from home; a place where you can lose yourself - where you can relax and have fun, adventure, explore or engage in personal combat with other people. It's the most coherent virtual world I've ever experienced. By turns amusing, irreverent, awe-inspiring, exciting and occasionally frightening, you could spend years playing it and still never discover it all.

2) Star Wars: Knights of Old Republic - The best Star Wars game ever made, and in my opinion, the best single-player RPG as well. Great characters, a superb story and one of the most astounding plot twists in a game ever. And, of course, lightsabers.

3) Half-Life 2 - The ultimate First Person Shooter. Stunning technology, innovative design, great AI and a fantastic game setting. Getting the Gravity Gun is one of those seminal moments in videogames - it just makes you look at the game in an entirely different way: using your head and the environment, rather than just your reflexes and the guns.

4) Deus Ex - Probably the first game in which I felt I was given a world and left to experiment and play in it, rather than being lead through it by the nose. If you analyse the game in isolation, it doesn't really stand up, as even at the time the graphics weren't so great, the animation sucked, the combat was flaky and the plot had a few holes, but when you put everything together, it just *worked*. I remember being dropped into Liberty Island on the opening level and having gone about five steps before you're confronted by your "brother" Paul, and he asks you to pick a weapon from a sniper rifle, GEP gun or crossbow. I was horrified, even appalled: "I don't want to make a decision yet! I'm not ready!" Being dropped into a situation with an almost total lack of context and being asked to react to it and make blind decisions was something I'd never encountered at the time (in a game, at least). Deus Ex was the game that started me playing RPGs, and for that alone, it deserves a place on the list.

5) UFO: Enemy Unknown - This was the first PC game I ever played, and even today, it's still one of the best. The depth of management, the intensity of the squad battles, the variety of enemies and the complexity of the research tree - none of it has been surpassed in any of the X-Com imitators that have sprung up in the last five years.

6) Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn - The pick of all the Forgotten Realms AD&D RPGs. A fine balance between story, stats, and characterisation. I've lost count of the number of Friday evenings/Saturday early mornings I've lost to this.

7) TIE Fighter - Being a Hero is good. Being The Bad Guy is better. Enough said.

8) Civilisation 4 - Not so much a game as an institution. The entire history of the world in twenty hours - except you get to call the shots. One of the few games to be fun and educational without being "edutainment", and dangerously compulsive to boot. Just. One. More. Turn!

9) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - Best game soundtrack ever. I play it just to drive around and listen to the music. That the actual *game* part is at the peak of the freeform action-adventure genre is just a bonus. Cars, bikes, helicopters, boats, planes... there's just so much in this game you can do - the sheer level of variety makes it the perfect Desert Island game. It's hard to get bored with a game when there's so much to do, and it's all done so well.

10) Star Wars: Supremacy - This game is simply heaven for a megalomaniac like me. Who wants to run a planet when you can run a GALAXY instead? Macro-economics, micromanagement, logistics, espionage, subterfuge, insurrection, invasion, assassination, sabotage and armed conflict - the scale of your task is mind-boggling. It might not be particularly clever or pretty, but it *is* big and very, very addictive. Everything that has transpired has done so according to my design! And that's just the way I like it...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bark: Busy, not dead.

Just in case you were wondering... Normal service will be resumed soon.

/End of line