Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bark: Your appointment to FEMA will be finalised within the week

Bring back Walton Simons, all is forgiven...

Byte: It's just like the buses

I go six months without any review copies at all, and then two come along at once... admittedly, the gap between arrivals has mainly been through my choice (unlike the London buses), mainly thanks to work, but it is nice to get back into writing "properly" again - if you can call games journalism "proper" writing, that is (and I do).

The games in question are Race 07, which (somewhat unsurprisingly) is a car racing game from the same stable as the brilliant GTR2. I have the first Race game, and rather enjoyed it, as the cars are somewhat more controllable, since they don't have stupendous amounts of horsepower under the bonnet. The hook for this year's version is that they've got a couple of extra classes of car (beyond the WTCC cars), what include Formula 3000 and Formula BMW single-seaters. They're essentially a poor man's Formula One car, but they're known for very close racing, so should be a lot of fun.

The second game, however, takes rather higher priority over Race 07, as I've been intrigued by it since I started hearing good rumblings about it at last year's Game Convention in Leipzig. The game in question is The Witcher.

I've not played too much of it so far (a couple of hours' worth), but my first impressions are that it's really rather good. And judging from the names of the movie files in the game resource directory, your character can have no less than 24 sexual encounters. Which is an impressive statistic in itself. The engine is also very nice (a much better revamping of the Aurora engine than Obsidian's effort) and combat is a little different from your typical RPG. I'm looking forward to playing more tonight. I'll post the link to the review when it's up, naturally.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Byte: Staturday Night Fever

Since I've been playing a lot of Neverwinter Nights 2 lately, I've obviously been mucking about with character classes quite a bit. Then I started wondering whether my own alignment and preferred class had changed since I last took the AD&D test. Unfortunately, the original test page seems to have disappeared into the mysterious aether, but I did manage to find a mirror, albeit without the Deity results.

Interestingly, my results have changed rather a lot since I last took the test a couple of years back - I'm very surprised to see that not only have I changed alignment and race, but what was my secondary class is now my primary (and only) class. Here's the new AD&D me:

You Are A True Neutral Half-Elf Bard

Alignment:
True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Race:
Half-Elves are a cross between a human and an elf. They are smaller, like their elven ancestors, but have a much shorter lifespan. They are sometimes looked down upon as half-breeds, but this is rare. They have both the curious drive of humans and the patience of elves.

Primary Class:
Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Secondary Class:


Detailed Results:

Alignment:
Law and Chaos:
Law ----- (-2)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Chaos --- XXXXXXXXXXX (11)

Good and Evil:
Good ---- XXXX (4)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Evil ---- XXX (3)

Race:
Human ---- XXXX (4)
Half-Elf - XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Elf ------ XXXXXX (6)
Gnome ---- (-1)
Halfling - XXXXXXXXX (9)
Dwarf ---- (-4)
Half-Orc - XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)

Class:
Fighter -- XXXXX (5)
Barbarian -XXXXXXXX (8)
Ranger --- XXXXX (5)
Monk ----- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Paladin -- XX (2)
Cleric --- XXXXXX (6)
Mage ----- XXXXXXXXX (9)
Druid ---- XXXX (4)
Thief ---- (-3)
Bard ----- XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)


I'm quite tempted to try this out next time a roll a new character.

Bark: I'm all ears

I'm having a catch up chat with my work cohort and buddy Charles, when in our usual spirit of throwing non-sequiturs at each other, he throws me a link to a picture. I don't know how he came into possession of the link, and I don't really want to know, either, but anyway: this was the picture.



Spot the difference. It's quite subtle, and I didn't notice at first, but yes, this girl has had plastic surgery to give her elf ears. The first question you immediately ask is "Why?", closely followed by "Dear God, why?!?"

The answer no doubt has something to do with the fact she can make a huge amount of money with an elf cosplay website, because there are slightly strange people who like that kind of thing. Each to their own, I suppose.

Then I realised that the link to the picture said "gallery1.jpg", which implied there were more. So I tweaked the URL and...



BY ALL THAT'S UNHOLY, DEAR BEELZEBUB, MY EYES!
AIIEEEEEE! RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!


It was at that point my bravery failed me. There may be more... You know, I can understand the girl doing it - I think she was fairly cute to begin with, so she can probably get away with it (at least until she's the wrong side of 40, anyway - by which point she'll have made so much money from her inevitable scantily-clad elf website that she can retire and have plastic surgery again to put them back to normal) and get a whole load of geek-sex from amorous elf-o-philes in the meantime. Though I'm not sure whether that classes as a bonus. But the bloke... deary me.

Really, I mean, why? Why don't you just tattoo "I will never, ever have sex again in my entire life" on your forehead? Or at least get a t-shirt with it monogrammed on. It'd be just as effective and a whole lot cheaper... It's as if being ginger wasn't large enough an impediment to getting laid and he thought "In for a penny..." (I'm not gingerist, by the way - female redheads are almost universally super-sexy, but whenever I see redheaded men, I think "ginger gnome". Cruel, perhaps, but still true... anyway, I digress)

Sorry, but I really just can't get over just how WRONG that picture is. I think I need to go and lie down now...

Bark: I have sharp knives and I know how to use them

I haven't given you a recipe in a while, so in lieu of a proper blog post today, here's the scallop and asparagus risotto recipe I cooked on Friday night for one of my girlfriend's colleagues. I am informed (from sources other than myself) that it was good. But then again, these sources (my guests for the evening) have seen my collection of large cooking knives, so may have just been being polite... Do shout out if you enjoy any of the recipes I post - there are plenty more where this came from. If I ever find the time I do intend to compile them into a book at some point.

Scallop & Asparagus risotto: (serves 4)


Ingredients:

300-400g Arborio risotto rice (depends how large you like your portions – oo-er, missus, etc!)
400g of King Scallops
1 red chilli (de-seeded)
2 cloves of garlic (finely sliced)
2 medium red onions
300g of button mushrooms (peeled, and sliced into quarters)
2 Ramiro sweet peppers
1 pointed spicy green pepper (I buy these from Sainsbury’s, though if you can’t find them, a normal green pepper will do)
1 large courgette
350g of asparagus spears
10g of fresh lemon thyme
10g of fresh rosemary
10g of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 pint of vegetable stock
1 bottle of medium or dry white wine (nothing too fancy, a run of the mill Chardonnay with do)
Grated parmesan to serve (as much as you like!)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt
Black Pepper

Utensils:
1 large, deep sided pan for the risotto
1 heavy based frying pan for the scallops
2 spatulas or cooking spoons

Method:

The trick with risottos is good timing – put in the ingredients in the right order, don’t overwhelm the pan with stock and keep stirring – and it’s really hard to go wrong.

First, prepare the vegetables. Don’t chop the vegetables too finely, keep things nice and rustic (to use an overly pretentious chefy term) because you want things to still have a bit of bite and texture to them after 20 minutes in the stock. If you slice things too thinly, they’ll just get obliterated and turn to mush as you stir the risotto, which isn’t too appetising, really. So prepare the onions, peppers, courgette by slicing them into chucks around 1cm thick. Similarly with the asparagus, you want to keep them fairly chunky, but not cut the pieces so large they won’t cook. Take off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus spears, because they tend to be a little woody and fibrous, chuck them on the compost (or in the bin) and then slice the remains into quarters (the sections should be about 3-4cm long). Finely chop the herbs and mix together, and then finely slice the garlic and the chilli. You can keep the seeds in if you like your food really hot, but the chilli is going to be used with scallops, so bear in mind if you keep the seeds in, the chilli will rather overwhelm the taste of the scallops…

Now for the cooking!

Fry off the onions over a high heat in some olive oil, adding the garlic when the onions start to colour. Do not let garlic brown, just give it about 30 seconds to flavour the oil and then add the mushrooms, seasoning with a little salt to draw out the moisture and plenty of black pepper. After another minute or so, add the courgette and stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Then add the asparagus, stir frying for another minute. At this point add the rice, stirring constantly (and get used to doing this, as you’re going to need to do it for the next 20 minutes!) and allow the rice to fry until the grains start to turn translucent. Start a stopwatch, or a kitchen timer, and you need to time twenty minutes. At this point you need to add your first bit of stock. Do NOT add all the stock at once. Ideally, you should have the stock in a pan, and you add a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly, adding more stock as it gets absorbed by the rice. But if you’re just lazy like I am, make the stock in a pint glass and just put in a quarter to begin with.

Stir like crazy so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan – because if it starts sticking to the bottom, it’ll burn very quickly, and that’s clearly not good! As the rice absorbs the stock that’s in the pan keep stirring (have you taken the hint yet??) and add about 150ml of white wine, alternating wine with stock as you need to add more liquid to the pan. Taste and season as you go (don’t be afraid of using plenty of black pepper – but don’t add too much salt, because there’s enough of that in the parmesan to give you a heart attack as it is!). When your timer says you’ve got about 10 minutes to go, add all the peppers and the herb mix. Keep adding stock and wine and don’t let the rice burn…

When you have about 6 minutes to go, put the scallops and chilli in a pan with olive oil, and fry over a high heat, turning the scallops every two minutes (Don’t forget to keep stirring the risotto! Sorry, I’m labelling the point somewhat, but it is important!)
Let the scallops brown slightly, but don’t let them overcook – because there’s nothing worse than an overcooked scallop (Rubber-tastic!). After you’ve turn the scallops twice, take the pan off the heat, and add some white wine to the pan, stirring gently to deglaze the pan – this will also help keep the scallops moist while you finish up with the risotto.

If you’ve got your timing right, the risotto should be done by now – the rice will be lovely and creamy, but still with a slight firmness at the centre. You should also have used all of the vegetable stock, and at least half of the bottle of wine – to give you an indication on how much liquid the rice should have soaked up.

Now all there is to do is plate up – the risotto should still be quite liquid (not runny, but like a thick cream) so it’s best to use plates with a bit of depth on them – or even use bowls if you want that whole comfort-eating experience. Serve the risotto first, then putting the scallops on top, and finally dusting the whole plate with grated (or shaved) parmesan, in case your arteries weren’t screaming enough in protest as it is…

Then get a fork and… oh, I guess you’ve got this part figured out already! ;-)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bark: Eastern Promises

I've always passingly liked David Cronenberg's movies, but it was until I saw A History of Violence that I really enjoyed one of his film beyond a schlock level. So when Fleur saw that his new film, Eastern Promises was on in Guildford, we wasted no time in booking it. After all, Fleur has the hots for Viggo Mortensen, and I rather like Naomi Watts, so what's not to like, eh?

The film sets its stall out very early, and Cronenberg's expert eye for the gruesome certainly remains undimmed. Like A History of Violence, there's actually isn't that much violence in the film, but that simply makes what there is hit harder and really shock. The two films are actually quite similar in a lot of ways, as Mortensen's character is more than what he initially seems - though I won't say more than that. The characters themselves are very nicely handled, and the acting is first-rate throughout.

So if you're stuck for something to do, it's well worth seeing.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bark: Americans as smart as squirrels - official

This little guy didn't have an exit strategy, either.

Byte: Your last meal

I've had a much keener sense of my own mortality this week, thanks to my digestive system mounting an insurgency of epic proportions against my governing body, so as I was playing Mask of the Betrayer last night (a game with it's own obsessions around death and mortality - namely a plot based around Kelemvor, God of The Dead), I got to thinking "I hope this dross isn't the last thing I ever play."

Yes, unfortunately, Mask of the Betrayer isn't doing much to endear itself to me. The game keeps crashing at inopportune moments, the camera makes combat desperately hard to manage - especially on the monochrome Shadow Plane where characters are indistinguishable from each other if they get too close, and where holding down the button to highlight selectable characters and objects simply causes a whiteout where you can't see anything at all in the mass of limbs. And the less said about the GUI the better. It would be okay if the AI was any cop, but that's rubbish, too. I was trying to fight a group of thieves in Shadow Mulsantir, and after my party decided it was going to stand in a bottleneck so that no-one could move, my NPCs just stood there like lemons getting hacked to pieces by sneak attacks, because the crappy camera made it impossible for my one melee character to find and attack the rogues merrily grinding my party into kibble. So after about the fifth attempt (and the second system crash caused by me trying to switch character members in the middle of the battle), I reasoned, "Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to reboot and play Portal."

Which all sparked a bit of a puzzle: Say you knew for certain that you had six hours to live, and you could only play one game. What would it be? (And I mean a videogame, not "hide the sausage with the supermodel"...)

So, readers, some suggestions, please.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Byte: Whee! Wii!

My copy of Metroid Prime 3 is in the post! This might be what it takes to kick-start me playing on my Wii again. As I've still got a practically untouched copy of Twilight Princess to get stuck into and literally untouched copies of Super Paper Mario and Mercury Meltdown Revolution to start as well. It's not that I've become bored with the Wii at all - I've not really touched any of my consoles in weeks (months?) because I've been busy with other things. But now that interesting things are starting to come out again, maybe I'll get back to them. We shall see...

Bark: Crisps are not the only fruit

My stomach spent most of last night trying to chew its way out of my chest cavity, because I seem to have the most dreadful over-reactions to food containing anything more than the slightest smidgen of chilli. So perhaps having a third of a jar of hot lime pickle accompanying my curry last night wasn't such a good idea.

Not having been able to eat all morning for fear of exploding like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, instead of having my usual lunch of whatever baguette is least revolting in the canteen and a large packet of salt and vinegar crisps, instead I popped out to Sainsbury's and got myself a pot of fruit salad. I can feel my heart and arteries protesting as I type... I don't usually treat them like this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Byte: Mask of the Betrayer

I'm playing through the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion at the moment, since I've already completed Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (Manchester United 0) and I don't really want to get sucked back into Warcraft until the new expansion comes out (though I am quite tempted to take a look at some of the Hallow's End content, if only to get another Hallowed Wand that will allow me to transform party members into plaguebats or zombies).

I have a bit of an odd habit with RPG games. Because I'm basically the human equivalent of a five week old kitten, with an attention span to match, I like starting to play with things much more than seeing them through to a definitive conclusion, so it probably won't surprise you to hear that I've started playing most of the RPGs in my collection about thirty times each with different characters, but only rarely have I ever troubled the concluding couple of hours of them. (Baldur's Gate and the original Neverwinter Nights - plus its expansions - being rare exceptions)

Unsurprisingly, I started Mask of the Betrayer with about four different characters over the last week, which is probably testament to the fact that the first hour isn't as mind-numbingly dull as Irenicus's Dungeon in Baldur's Gate II (not that this ever stopped me from starting Baldur's Gate II two dozen times). That's not to say it's particularly interesting or exciting, just that it's passably enjoyable enough while I experiment with trying to find a decent combination of character classes that make my player character self-sufficient enough not to have to rest to recover their hit points every thirty steps.

Because Mask of the Betrayer is for Epic (i.e. Level 20-30 characters), it's rather on the hardcore side, meaning that you've really got to have a character that can wear heavy armour and hit things very hard, or be such a killer spellcaster that things will die pretty much as soon as you look at them, before they get into melee range and take you to pieces because you have no hit points and a poor armour class.

The Bard/Red Dragon Disciple I imported from my original NWN2 game didn't quite have the chops to cut it (a little light on spell power and hit points), thanks to the +2 level adjustment of being Drow. Trying to take on three or four level 20 spirit bears when you're only Level 17 is a bit much... So I restarted a couple of times until I settled on a combination I first tried and enjoyed in the original Neverwinter Nights - Fighter/Rogue. The Fighter levels give you the hit points and all the combat feats, whereas the Rogue levels give you lots of skill points, so you can disable traps (very important), open locks (less important, but still very useful) and top up your Diplomacy and Lore skills, so you have more conversation options and don't have to waste any money (or spell slots of NPCs) identifying high-end equipment. The only thing you really lack for true self-sufficiency is healing spells, but that's what you have health potions and healing kits for.

As for the game itself, I'm not really that far into it, but it is nice to get away from the Sword Coast, as the Forgotten Realms are a rather large place, and frankly, it's about time we got to see more of it. Not that this really makes a huge difference in the visual look of the game - the difference is more down to the politics and peoples of the region - especially the conflict and rivalry between the Rashemi and the Thayans. The cast (so far, at least) is also a little more untypical than the average computer-RPG, with a Red Wizard, a mind-reading Hagspawn and a death-obsessed Half-Celestial just for starters. They're a pretty serious bunch, (i.e. as straight-laced as a US Marine Corps Drill Sergeant's boots) but that's not necessarily a bad thing, assuming you found Grobnar and Co. as annoying as I did. It's a little disappointing that the game retreads a fair bit of ground covered by the first Neverwinter Nights expansion, Shadows of Undrentide, as there's a lot of plane-hopping going on to the Plane of Shadow, which just seems to be an excuse to use monochrome colour palettes that help disguise the continuing problems with the graphics engine.

The 3D camera in particular remains a hateful, schizophrenic thing - not knowing whether to be so sluggish as to totally kill your frame rate, or whether to be so overly sensitive that the merest touch of the mouse sends your view spinning through several hundred degrees. Graphics performance is barely improved over the original, and is shamed comprehensively by more sumptuous engines, such as the Episode 2-revamped Source. And the less said about the truly hideous and unfriendly GUI, the better...

It's still a bit early to call on the quality of the story and plot, but so far things look a little more promising, if anything thanks to the slightly more sober tone. The Forgotten Realms might be a weird and wonderful place - but I think they overplayed a lot of characterisation and quirkiness in the original. This seems a little more serious and is more in context of the harsh, unforgiving and tense history of the region the game takes place in. Like the original Neverwinter Nights before it, I can see myself completing the expansion pack long before I complete the main campaign of the game it spawned from, though thanks to the extended patching, I may actually go back to the original campaign and finish off the last act, just for completeness sake.

So, overall, it's okay. Not super-spectacular, but not super-bad either. If only they could sort out the graphics engine, I could imagine myself playing it a lot more. As it is, it's still got some way to go before it supplants Knights of the Old Republic as my favourite single-player RPG.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bark: Team Building

It's annual performance review time again, so we've got to spend a huge amount of time filling out self-evaluation forms to justify our existence, rather than spending the time doing actual useful, revenue-earning work. Which is great fun.

One of the criteria you have to self-assess under the heading "Team Building" is this:
Recognize and respect individual differences and diversity
Can I put "Showed respect and understanding and did not repeatedly stab colleague in the face with a blunt pencil after they said 'somefink' instead of 'something' for the three-thousandth time in the space of twenty minutes", or do you think that might not go down too well?

Bark: Well, I wasn't expecting that....

Of all the miserable sporting failures by Englishmen this weekend, the one I hadn't been really expecting was Kimi Raikkonen winning the Formula One World Championship this weekend. I had thought there would be a possibility of Hamilton not winning, but I expected Alonso to clean up and take the title - so for Kimi to get it instead, despite being disappointed for Hamilton, I was rather pleased. Alonso has really gone down in my estimation this year, more due to his conduct off the track than on it.

Of course, being Formula One, when I checked in on the BBC Sport website, there had to be a twist in the tale... I really hope that McLaren drop their appeal - it would be an absolute farce if the world championship got decided in the court room, rather than on the track. In simple terms of maths, Kimi got 6 race wins, Lewis got 4, so I think he fully deserves the title on merit. There's no doubt that Hamilton has had an amazing debut season. I've been watching Formula One since 1987, and I can't remember a more impressive Rookie. He'll be in the hunt for the title next season, definitely, and after now that he knows he can really cut it with the very best, he'll be even hungrier to get the title. I'm really delighted for Raikkonen, though, as he's an old school driver who's just plain FAST. Some of the maneuvers he was pulling off in the wet at Fuji were simply awesome. It would be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions if he were denied the title due to a technicality. And after the best F1 season in years, I don't think anyone wants that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Byte: How freaking cool is that?

Google Earth has a flight simulator built into it!

I will be trying this later. Assuming I haven't bashed my brains out all over my desk and keyboard because this FUCKING CURSOR isn't returning results when the SQL that defines it WILL return data in an SQL*Plus session...

Byte: Cussors, Part II

Damn and Blast on toast with a side order of Damn salad and a Blast dressing!

DAAAAAAMMMMNN!

Byte: Cussors

I'm doing some work with PL/SQL cursors at the moment, and it's driving me round the bend. I'm going to call them cussors, because they make want me want to spout obscenities like leaking pipe of BASTARDBLOODYSHITTYCUNTFUCKINGTURDS.

Right, now that's out of my system I can get back to work. After all, swearing is good. Some musty academics in Norfolk say so.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bark: Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse....

The Turkish government authorises military incursions into Iraq.

There's going to be nothing left by the time the Turks, Americans and Iranians are finished... An ignoble fate for what once used to be the seat of one of the first civilisations on Earth...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Byte: Mad props

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 has quite a few Achievements associated with things you can do within the game, and the strangest of these has to be the Little Rocket Man quest, which entails finding a garden gnome and then putting it in the rocket at White Forest before it gets launched.

Of course, by the time I noticed the achievement, I was already three-quarters of the way through the game, and didn't remember seeing a gnome anywhere. It turns out that you find it in pretty much the first map of the game. And the rocket is situated in one of the very last. So who on Earth would be crazy enough to cart a gnome through the entire game for the sake of an achievement on your stats?

Well, obviously, Tom Francis is crazy enough. And he was foresighted enough to document the journey. Mad props, Tom.

It was only after reading his account that I realised the weight discrepancy of the rocket mentioned during the launch sequence is because Lamarr has crawled in through the hatch. So this got me to thinking, wouldn't it have been much funnier (i.e. crueler) if Valve had made the rocket crash due to being overweight if you put in the gnome and given the game a different ending? Humanity, doomed, by a garden gnome. It would be FANTASTIC.

It's also slightly disappointing that there isn't another achievement for killing enemies by gravity-gun-propelled gnome. You could have someone's eye out with that pointy hat, surely. Valve, take note. This HAS to go into Episode 3, or I'm not buying it.*


*a lie, clearly.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bark: War! On White Socks.

Well, if you can have a war on Terror, why not have one on socks?

POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION FOR SOCKS! WEAR BLACK SOCKS, OTHERWISE YOU'RE RACIST! DOWN WITH WHITEY!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Byte: Episode 2 screenies

I've posted a few Half-Life 2: Episode 2 screenshots on Flickr. Beware that most of them are highly spoilerific - though I have stopped before giving away the ending, because that wouldn't really be very fair on people who stumble upon them by accident.

Next up is Portal. I played about an hour on it last night and wiped through the first 14 test chambers really without any problems at all. It's quite a novel concept, but it has been a little easy so far. I'm also not really sure why there's all this Weighted Companion Cube Love going around at the moment, either. I must be missing something...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Byte: Episode 2 - completed

HOLY FUCKING SHIT.

I admit, in the first couple of hours, in the Ant Lion tunnels, I had my doubts. But Episode 2 is far and away the best FPS I've played by MILES. The final action set piece is nothing short of EPIC. I mean, hyperbole is just not enough. It completely out-cools every single FPS you've ever played. And as for the actual end of the episode - it is quite strongly foreshadowed (assuming you're paying attention), but it still hits you like a baseball bat in the kidneys. Totally knocked me flat...

Sheer, utter brilliance.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Byte: You have failed me for the last time...

MSN Live Messenger has been giving me stupid errors and refusing to log in all day, so I'm going back to using Trillian. BEGONE FROM MY HARD DRIVE, USELESS MICROSOFT RUBBISH!

Byte: Oh, crap.

EA buys Bioware. Gamers weep. And foam at the mouth slightly. Perfectly understandable, really.

Bark: Surreally Good

If you're not watching The Peter Serafinowicz Show, you really should be.

Byte: Episode 2 First Impressions

I've played through roughly the first half of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, and boy, is it good. Not a question...

I'm going to keep this fairly short and as un-spoilery as possible, but I imagine most of the people reading this have completed the game already, so my caution is probably unnecessary. And I've already posted a whole load of spoiler-screenshots on my Flickr account. But anyhoo...

My impressions of Episode 2 so far, as numbered bullet points:

1) Ant Lions are even more annoying when they can spit acid.

2) Never try throwing explosive barrels at Hunters. Because they will shoot the barrel and blow you to bits.

3) Vortigaunts make good travelling companions.

4) Headcrab Zombies like toxic sludge.

5) Advisors are Brain Bugs from Starship Troopers. Except more scary. And psychic.

6) When all else fails, run the bastards over with the car.

7) An ammo cap of 18 rounds for the .357 Magnum is TOO SMALL.

8) The bridge seesaw puzzle is all kinds of cool.

9) Fast Headcrab Zombies don't like being hit in the face with a crowbar.

10) Poison Headcrabs still freak me out. Especially when they're being THROWN AT MY FACE.

More thoughts as I have them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Byte: The future's bright. The future's Orange. And box-shaped.

The Orange Box was released on Steam this morning. It finished pre-loading on my PC last night. And I've got another six hours to wait before I can get home and start playing. Daaaaaaaammmn.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Byte: Destined... to hit middle-age before being able to play the game.

Oh gods. Since I've not played Neverwinter Nights 2 for a while, thanks to the STUPID BUG THAT FORCES YOU PATCH THE GAME BEFORE YOU CAN EVEN INSTALL IT, I've had to download four incremental patches (totalling around 160MB - I'm not sure what that is in Peggles) for the game before I can even get the DVD in the drive. And, of course, the updater has to download and install all the patches separately, rather than just downloading a single all-in-one patch...

No. That would be too easy.

And Windows Update is determined to reboot the computer in the middle of each download, so rather than letting the updater programme do its thing and going away to do something productive - like make dinner - instead I have to sit uselessly by the PC to preempt and cancel any reboot before Windows decides I can't think for myself and makes the decision for me.

I hate this game already, and I haven't even installed it yet... This does not bode well.

Byte: Destined... to be disappointed?

Neverwinter Nights 2 might have reviewed pretty well in most places, but thanks to a whole host of technical problems (and a few other annoyances) I didn't reckon it was *all that*.

So why the heck did I go out at lunch and buy it's expansion pack? Well, clearly, I'm a sucker for Forgotten Realms RPGs. I haven't seen much hype about Mask of the Betrayer, and it's hit the streets before I've seen any reviews go up anywhere, which is probably a bad sign - but on the plus side, it is set in Rasheman, so hopefully we'll get a cameo from Minsc, assuming he's finished his dajemma by now. I will follow the ridiculous pre-play patch procedure (thanks for telling me about that one, RPS) tonight and no doubt report back tomorrow on how Obsidian are turning into Troika by continually releasing games that ought to be brilliant but are blighted so badly by bugs that they'll eventually go bankrupt when people stop buying their games through bad word of mouth...

In other news, this chap is my new hero, and goes straight in (alphabetically) at number two on my favourite people list. Watch this and his other reviews to find out why.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Byte: Which Way Adventure

A quite brilliantly demented Flash game, harking back to a staple of my youth, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.

I've played through it quite a few times now, and the moral of the story seems to be this: never, ever, try to have sex or see women naked, otherwise you will be eaten by a manticore. Also, if you inadvertently cause a nuclear holocaust and destroy Capitalism, EAT THE CORN BREAD FOR VICTORY.

Link via the ever-redoubtable Rock-Paper-Shotgun.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bark: Architects of their own destruction

I'm drowning my sorrows in the aftermath of an abject Scotland display in their Rugby World Cup quarter final.

Scotland were about as exciting as a Gordon Brown speech on inflationary pressures in the economy - at least for about 65 minutes, whereupon they actually remembered that they were allowed to run the ball, not just keep kicking it away. To be fair, neither side really played very well - but Argentina took their chances, while Scotland didn't. If anything, Scotland probably had more of the game, but gave away a try and kept giving away unnecessary lineouts by fumbling catches from garryowen kicks. Sean Lamont played like a numpty, and his brother Rory didn't do much better, either, and it wasn't a surprise to see the latter replaced, unfortunately far too late in the game.

Scotland did actually look half decent with the ball in hand, but by the time they started to play, they had too much to do. They also kicked away a decent chance for a try with a few minutes to go, so while being predictably disappointed by Scotland's lack of a cutting edge, I can't really have too many complaints about the loss. The Pumas' half-backs ran the game much better than ours did, but if they play like that next week, I can't see that they'll really pose too much trouble for the Springboks. Hey, well. At least we did better than the Welsh... not that I have anything against the Welsh in particular - it's just Celtic rivalry... and if I'm after real schadenfreude, it could be worse... I could be a Kiwi or an Aussie right now.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bark: Backronym to the Future

Keeping up the Space theme, and my bugbear about people coming up with acronyms and then finding the words for them afterwards, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the Quasi-Universal Intergalactic Denomination, or "Quid", which as UK residents will know, is slang for Pounds Sterling.

*bangs face repeatedly on table*

The Professor quoted in the piece used to be one of my lecturers, as well... Weep.

Bark/Byte: Spaced out

I've been a little spaced out this week, in more than one sense, because not only have I had to take a couple of days off this week due to some mysterious lurgy, this week also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch. The current state of the Space Programme is pretty depressing when you think about it. In the first twelve years, we'd put men on the Moon, but for the last thirty-five years, not only have we not made it back to the Moon, it's been a struggle to get people into orbit and back again in one piece. I have serious doubts whether we'll make it back to the Moon, let alone to Mars (and I'd be first on the list of volunteers for that one-way-trip) in my lifetime. It doesn't have to be this way, either - if only politicians could see that learning about space and travelling to other planets is ultimately a little more important than international terrorism. Mankind should be reaching out to the stars, because one day we're going to have to leave Earth because we've done such a good job of screwing it up, but it seems like we'd much rather just sit in the mess we've created and go extinct. Somehow, I don't think we'll be missed...

Mankind's a petty little species more content with picking meaningless fights over equally meaningless belief systems and resources that are destined to run out and leave us living back in the Stone Age than pulling together and working for a common benefit. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I hate all the vested interests of governments and corporations who want their little piece of power and money pie - and who are willing to walk over whoever it takes to keep hold of it. They'll be the end of us all - but as long as they hang onto their power and money, short-termism will rule - and it's a situation I can't see changing until there's a catastrophe of such huge proportions that it'll be too late to do anything about it.

Perhaps this is why I take refuge in videogames (and alcohol), because unreality trumps what's laughably called "real life" every time. In games at least you have some measure of control and the choices you make are your choices - you still have to conform to the world's rules, but at least you have the consequence-free illusion of control and choice. Semi-inspired by the Sputnik anniversary, but mainly because I really fancied playing it again, I reinstalled Haegemonia this week, and I've played most of my way through the first three campaigns. It's one of the few RTS games I've ever really been able to get to grips with, much more so than something like Homeworld, for example. At the time of its original release, I compared it favourably with my favourite RTS of all time: Star Wars: Supremacy (or Rebellion, if you're not a Brit) and had a legendary review-and-counter-review battle with MPK in State Magazine about it (the infamous Hedge-mona issue - if anyone still has a copy of it, please mail it to me, I seem to have temporarily misplaced my copy - I'm sure I still have it on a CD-R somewhere, I just can't be arsed looking for it).

Considering that it's clocking on for five years old now, I still think Haegemonia stands up nicely today, and would say that it's one of the most underrated RTS games of recent times. I think it's quite prescient in that the story begins with humanity knocking seven bells of Hell out of each other before actually realising "hmm, wouldn't it be easier if we could all... get along?" - and then, of course, it finds new, interesting alien species to beat the crap out of instead. Though viscerally still quite stunning ("OMG, the 'splodes!"), the combat isn't really why I like the game so much - it was more that sense of being in a persistent universe. Other than on a couple of occasions, all the work you put into colonising and building up planets transferred from one mission to the next, so rather than being wholly scripted, you could strategically plan from one level to the next ("hmmm, it would be interesting to put a Quantum Defence Platform over this wormhole...") to set up choke points, or provide your worlds with Military Academies, Planetary Shields or the like for the next level so you didn't have to micromanage so much. So like Supremacy, while there's the whole galactic conflict and genocide of worlds thing going on, you're still creating a legacy and going boldly where no-one has gone before (whoops, wrong franchise).

So if you're pissed off that we're not yet living on Mars in a techno-meritocracy too, you might do well to pick it up for all of five of your Earth Pounds, and live those spaced out dreams...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bark: Fly me to the beach. Literally.

Byte: RUUUUUN, COWAAAAAARRDDS!

I've put in quite a few more hours on Team Fortress 2 now, and I think I'm finally getting the hang of it. Though if you looked at my stats on the PC Gamer server last night, you wouldn't think so.

The new "patch" actually appears to have degraded performance quite significantly: I was getting terrible lag at some points, and there were some distinctly odd things happening at times, including getting stuck in walls and the camera falling through the floor of the level whenever I got killed. But I digress...

I've pretty much settled on my three favourite classes now and they are (in order of preference): Heavy Weapons, Soldier and Pyro.

I personally find the Heavy the most fun to play, though I know there are certain people who would disagree with me on that. I just love his almost innocent, yet psychotic, enthusiasm. Being a big huge lump of minigun-toting meat has a few drawbacks - mainly the slow spin-up time of the minigun and the tortuous movement rate, which unfortunately makes you pretty much a sitting duck for the BASTARD SPIES, but they're fantastic fun in Sudden Death, especially when you've got a Medic backing you up. I love waddling into the enemy base on 2Fort with a Medic at my back, simply laying waste to all the defensive turrets around the base entrance, and also laying waste to the people as they come out of the respawn point. Well, until I run out of ammunition, anyway... He's also got some wonderful battle cries. He's probably the most accessible class to play with after the Soldier - it's easy to pick up the basics, and you can absolutely dominate a server once you start to master the class.

The Soldier is probably the class which is the easiest to pick up and play with, given that there's not much of a mental leap to really grasp what you can do with a rocket launcher. If there's any nuance to the Soldier at all, it's in mastering the rocket jump (which I haven't yet). I like them purely because they're good for dealing with turrets - I don't actually have that many kills with the rocket launcher yet, because I'm still fighting the lag in my head. I do find it mildly annoying that taking a rocket to the face seems to kill you in one shot, but never anyone else you do it to. I'm also noticing that some Soldiers seem to have much faster rocket re-fire rates than I do. I'm not sure if that's a problem with my mouse, my internet connection or just my trigger finger. I'd say "OMG, HAX", but that's just sour grapes, really. Note to self: Must. Get. Better.

The Pyro is rapidly becoming a favourite and may supplant the Soldier in my affections, basically because they're so frantic. The key to playing as a Pyro is picking an ambush spot and waiting for the BASTARD SPIES to come to you. When moving from ambush point to ambush point you can still do quite a bit of damage with the shotgun, so you're not utterly defenceless, but in close-quarters, especially around control points, the flamethrower is KING. The Pyro was allegedly buffed in the last patch, but I haven't noticed any increase in the range of the flamethrower - but then again, that could just be me. Pyros are fantastic because whenever you ambush someone and set them alight, the engagement turns into a demented Benny Hill chase, except with guns instead of girls and napalm instead of a cheeky grin. You can almost hear the music going off in your head. I still think that the Pyro is relatively underpowered, but they're the best antidote to BASTARD SPIES, simply because the precautionary flaming that Pyros always give their team-mates can "out" Spies in a second. And for that reason alone, I will continue to play with them. Well, that and the muffled taunts and battle-cries too, natch.