Monday, June 30, 2008

Bark/Byte: A tough crowd

I've just got back home from a school in Rochdale [correction: Oldham], where I was taking part in a seminar about mathematics being run by a friend of mine. Of course, getting 14 and 15 year old kids enthusiastic about mathematics is about as hard a task you could possibly imagine, given that Oldham isn't exactly well known for its Nobel Prize Winning Scientists (that is, they don't have any)...

Knowing from my own experiences as a Year 10 student that "attention span" and "maths" go together like "military" and "intelligence", rather than do a straight lecture and talk at an audience for 30 minutes about a subject they're never going to find interesting in the first place, I thought I'd try a different tack.

A lot of people are almost genetically immune to being interested in maths, but what they don't realise is that the human brain is essentially an organic computer; we use maths every single day, even if we don't associate it as maths. Every time you cross the road, you're making a mathematical calculation: can I get to the other side of the road before the car runs me over? This is actually quite a complex mathematical determination. Two bodies travelling at different speeds, across different distances: i.e. the speed of the car and the distance between you and the car, opposed to the speed you can walk or run and the distance from one side of the road to the other. You're making an instinctive calculation as to whether you can make your journey quicker than the car. It's maths, but because you don't have the numbers and equations written down on a page, you don't necessarily make the association.

It's the same when you're playing snooker or pool. Initially, you might not think it's terribly mathematic, but there's a lot of geometry involved and the transfer of momentum between the balls according to the angle of impact has it's very own branch of mathematics, called elastic impacts (or elastic collisions). Studying elastic impacts in A Level Maths at school made me a much better pool player, meaning that I could hold my own in the student bars at university, rather than get spanked senseless by the people who played a lot more often than I did, but there are people out there who are brilliant pool or snooker players, but would probably be appalled if they ever discovered that they were doing maths whenever they played a shot.

With this concept in mind (the unknowing use of maths by people who hate to study it) I decided to base my presentation on the use of mathematics in videogames. The main thrust of my presentation was describing how maths is used when creating videogames and the virtual worlds they take place in, with the aim being that the audience should realise that maths helps us understand how things work in the real world, and that precisely the same mathematic concepts that are used in the real world are used in virtual worlds as well.

To try and stop attentions from wandering too much, I tried to liven things up with a couple of demonstrations, using my gaming laptop hooked up to a projector. In the end, I went for the Michael Bay approach: loud music and explosions. Audiosurf was my first practical example, utilising a willing victim from my audience to play the game as I described what was going on and how the game used mathematical algorithms to convert an MP3 track from binary code into an abstract, traffic-filled motorway occupying 3D space.

I also wanted to use Peggle to demonstrate a simple virtual world system (gravity, conservation of energy and impact geometry), but unfortunately Steam threw a bit of a fit and prevented a hands-on. So instead, I moved swiftly on to the finale of my presentation, a full-on virtual world, with proper physics and explosions: a hands-on with Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. This revived flagging interests (at least with the boys) for the last few minutes of my presentation. Seriously, how can anything not be fun if it has explosions?

Overall though, not being that used to public speaking, it was a pretty tough gig, but hopefully they enjoyed it. Interest definitely perked up in certain sections of the audience when I mentioned in the question and answer session at the end that it was possible to BE PAID TO PLAY GAMES. Games journalism might not have a huge amount to do with the subject of the seminar, but there were definitely a few kids there who thought that being paid to play games six months earlier than other people was rather cool. I'm going to be keeping an eye on my email inbox over the next few weeks to see if any of the kids from the school get in touch with me, wanting to know how to get into the games industry. So if you see any games writers from Oldham in the mainstream press appear over the next few years, I'm claiming credit now, m'kay?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Byte: My name is Iain, and I'm an alt-o-holic.

I have a problem when it comes to RPGs. It doesn't matter whether it's an online RPG like World of Warcraft or a single player RPG like Mass Effect, I'm addicted to rolling new characters. Very rarely will I buy a new RPG, create a character and play the game through to the end before starting the game again with another. In fact, I think the only RPG I've ever done that with is ZAngband, and that was only because it doesn't allow you to maintain more than one character at once...

I've been trying to analyse this compulsion. Why can't I just sit down with one character and enjoy the game from end to end before experimenting with other characters? Part of it is the bewildering choice of character classes an RPG gives you. Take Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example. There you have just three character classes to choose from initially (Soldier, Scout, Scoundrel) and can take a further Jedi class later in the game (Guardian, Consular or Sentinel). This means that you can choose from a total of nine different class combinations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but this is just for starters. If you want to get completionist about it, you then can double this as you have the choice of playing as a male or female character, to experience the different romances for each player gender. Then you can double it again, because you can play Dark Side or Light Side, to experience the different Force powers. Of course, no-one in their right mind is going to play through a game that can eat upwards of 25 or 30 hours on each play through THIRTY-SIX TIMES. Well, I say that, but I've played entirely though roughly half of them and tasted them all.

The question you're no doubt asking at this point is "But... but, WHY?"

The obvious answer is "because it's there". Given a choice, I'll want to exercise the opportunity to take it. If a developer has taken the time to provide so many playing choices (be that character classes, genders or morality alignments) I'm going to want to try and find the one I like best. And this naturally takes time to experiment and find. Clearly, all this experimentation time might take longer than actually just sitting down and concentrating on one character and finishing the game. But why should I do that if I'm not sure that I'm going to find that character class enjoyable to play? Who says I should just endure it and just play through to the end? I'll be damned if I'm going to buy a game and not enjoy playing it.

I'd much rather experiment with a game and not complete it, rather than just arbitrarily pick a class and stick with it, regardless of whether I find it a rewarding playing experience or not. Anyone who's played WoW with me will know that I currently maintain over half a dozen characters at any one time. Of course, I have my "main" - a feral Druid at the current experience cap of level 70 - but beyond that, I have no less than five alternate characters on that same server alone, plus a further three (alternate faction) characters on other servers. And this doesn't even touch on the characters I've started, played for ten or thirty levels and then junked because I didn't like them...

I crave variety in games, which explains the level of experimentation in classes and professions that I've indulged in with World of Warcraft, but that's just the beginning. At least with WoW I've actually "completed" the game, insofar as having reached the current level cap with one of my characters. The same cannot be said of other RPGs... for example (and I know this undermines my reputation as something of an RPG expert), I've never actually completed Baldur's Gate, or Baldur's Gate 2. (Though I do intend to at some point)

The closest I've come to completing Baldur's Gate was getting to the final battle with Sarevok and his evil chums as a Fighter/Druid multi-class and (somewhat predictably) getting mercilessly slaughtered. Similarly, with Baldur's Gate II, the furthest I've got into that was most of the way into Chapter 6 with a Half-Elf Ranger; that is, a good 80% into the game without ever actually seeing it through to its conclusion. But if you were to simply add up the amount of time I've played these games with the different characters I've created over the years (easily over 300 hours each), I could have completed each game many times over.

However, I find that there's something very compelling about the sheer level of variety on offer in these games. The destination is almost incidental to the journey. Where you end up is not nearly so important as how you get there in the first place.

This is why I keep rolling new characters in RPGs. In a sense, I don't really care so much about the story. Of course, it needs to be interesting enough to make me care about the game world: without that sense of immersion, what's the point in playing the game? But experimenting with all the different playing styles is what's truly compelling. Magic or martial? Good or evil? These are the choices that make games replayable, and with RPGs in particular, replayability is the biggest draw.

I almost don't feel like I've gotten value out of a game until I've tried every single facet of everything it has to offer. Only when you've tried everything can you really say what you like best out of a game, or find the way in which you prefer to play. For example, if you look at my Team Fortress 2 stats you'll see that I've given all the classes a run out, before plumping with a few favoured classes. (Note: I haven't played TF2 for months - well before the Medic and Pyro class updates) So perhaps this is all a symptom of my increasingly short attention span... what was I talking about?

Mass Effect is another good example. Unusually for me, I completed it within a week (good going for me, given that it's got a 30+ hour campaign), but even that wasn't before I tried out three separate characters for a good five hours each before concentrating on one. And even now, I have four or five alts on the go, each around 10 hours into the game. Even more unusually, I'm enjoying them all pretty much equally, so I can see myself completing the game at least another two or three times. Hell, who knows, I might even go for the full set of character class combinations and complete it as many times as I have with KotOR, especially since Mass Effect kicks off much more quickly and is interesting from the start (unlike KotOR, which makes you sit through Taris before really starting in earnest).

Though choice in a game isn't always such a good thing, however. Take Oblivion, for example. All in all, I've probably played it for a good fifty hours, but for no more than eight hours with any individual character. The problem with Oblivion is that not only is the main story not particularly interesting, but the levelling system is utterly broken and the game world itself isn't nearly diverse enough. So despite having finally figured out how to play the game in a way that the broken scaling system doesn't make the game utterly impossible for you after level 5 (that is, create a custom class and pick class skills that you DON'T want to use, so that your character level doesn't increase too much and the enemies remain manageable, rather than becoming ridiculously overpowered), Oblivion runs out of steam quite quickly. After a couple of hours, you've seen pretty much everything the game has to offer and from then on it's just a case of repetition of formulaic encounters (caves or Oblivion gates... take your pick). It doesn't matter how much you try to mix things up with different classes or racial traits, the game doesn't really get more interesting to play.

So where exactly am I going with this post? Hmm. I'm not sure, really. I guess all I'm trying to say is that RPGs are my preferred form of game, if only because of the sheer amount of STUFF they give you to do and the amount of freedom in which they allow you to do it. I also suppose that it's a plea for developers not to cave in to industry pressures and restrict that choice and freedom in future games. I noted with some dismay the recent interview given by Warren Spector that was quoted on RPS about the possible impending demise of the long game. I don't think it's always necessarily the fault of the game if people don't always reach the end. Sure, a lot of the time it is, but (as I point out in the comments thread) when you've got people who are incapable of completing a game that's less than 6 hours long (HL2: Ep2) I don't think you have to always point the finger at the length of the game as the reason for people not completing it. Some gamers are psychologically unable of playing games through to completion. I know this has affected me in the past - Deus Ex and Beyond Good & Evil being notable examples of where it's taken me literally years to finish a game, simply because I didn't want to complete it, because then I'd never have a legitimate reason for wanting to play it again. But this rarely becomes a consideration with an RPG, because they are usually so much more epic in scope. If you were to lose that breadth, that scale of the game world and length of the story, I don't think I'd play RPGs nearly so much. If anything, I'm enamoured by the potential of the game world, rather than its actuality.

If we were to lose that, in favour of short, disposable, easily completable games that you can wipe through in less than 10 hours, I think I'd abandon playing videogames entirely. Either that or create my own games company in order to make the kind of RPGs I'd want to play. However, I'm not sure I buy Warren Spector's argument about the future being short games. I'm sure it won't come to that, not as long as you've got the Japanese market continuing to hanker after 100 hour RPG epics, anyway. Which reminds me, I bought Okami at the weekend and I've not played it yet. Excuse me... I have work to do...

Note: Credit where credit is due - Props to Richard for coming up with the post title when we were having a chat yesterday.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Byte: Your order has been posted

I got a pleasant surprise today. My copy of Mario Kart Wii turned up at lunchtime. It completely disappeared from the shops about three days after the initial release and I'd not seen a copy on the shelves since, so I put in an order with Play and waited for it to come back in stock.

I say it was a surprise to have it arrive today, because I didn't even know it was in the post. Lo and behold, the email telling me it had been dispatched has just arrived in my in-tray. A good four hours after the actual game itself. Are Play getting Doctor Who to do their deliveries now?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Byte: I went out and achieved anyway!

Something's starting to annoy me about Mass Effect...

As you're probably aware, I'm something of a compulsive new character roller when it comes to RPGs. I like to experiment with character classes to check out the balance between the abilities of each class and see which one I like best. However, since I've completed the game with a soldier, I got an achievement that allows all the new characters I create to pick a bonus talent that gives them a specialisation in Assault Rifles.

This means that the Adept character I rolled a few days ago is not only able to use the biotic powers, but also properly use the best multi-purpose weapon in the game; so even at a relatively lowly level 12, she can hand most enemies their asses back on a silver platter in about two seconds flat. Part of the point of having different character classes is that you have to trade off some abilities against others. However, the weapon achievements piss all over that from geosynchronous orbit. The result of having this achievement system is massively overpowered characters after your first play through.

And I think this devalues the whole point of balancing the character classes in the first place. What's the point of having characters that should normally be restricted to only using pistols being able to use Assault Rifles or Sniper Rifles if you scored the 150 required kills for each weapon in a previous game? It's the same with some of the other achievements. If you ever get to the point where you have more than 1 million credits, that unlocks the really high quality Spectre gear, which you can buy from the quartermasters on the Normandy or the Citadel. That's fair enough on the first play through - because typically you'll be near the end of the game by then - so by the time you get to fight all the really badass enemies, the weapon power is appropriate. However, having got the achievement in one game, the gear is then available for all your subsequent games, meaning that all you need to do is horde the cash and you can buy insanely destructive weapons very close to the start of the game. It's almost as bad as rolling a mage in Baldur's Gate and then using a character editor to boost all your stats to 20 and then giving a level 1 character access to 10th level spells, like Comet.

I suppose the developers would justify this by saying you could raise the difficulty to restore the game balance, but I've always thought that having "hard" difficulty levels on games is a bit stupid... i.e. they're for the cock-waving masochist crowd who think frustration is fun. If you're tempted to argue against that point, I would remind you of the time when one of the chaps on State (I think it was either Jonty Hicks or James Lyon) decided he was going to jump straight into Jedi Outcast at Jedi Master difficulty without trying the lower difficulty levels first. It took him about three days to get off the first level, thanks to the knuckleheadedness of the design (hidden turret emplacements, guns that don't shoot straight, horrible AI, etc).

I also suppose I could just not use the extra specialisations, but it irks me that you're even given the option. You don't get special bonuses when you complete and replay Knights of the Old Republic (or any D&D-derived RPG I've played, for that matter), so I can only attribute this evil to the consoletards who can't decide whether they're having fun or not unless they've unlocked all the "achievements" and like this kind of thing.

It's not going to stop me from playing the game by any means (I'm still obsessing far too much about Ashley for that to happen), but it does annoy me. It would be nice if they could put in an option that allows you to disable the achievement bonuses in the game options, so that you can play a "pure" game. I know from playing through KotOR a dozen or more times that after a while you do just want to mess around with a game, but that's what we have cheat codes and game mods for. I'd prefer it if you were able to complete the game honestly with each character class before you get the overpowered unlocks, because I don't like a game that's a complete walkover from the start, especially if it's the developers themselves who've made it that way. So please, no more achievements. Who do they think we are, anyway? The Big Lebowski?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Byte: Stellar

My Sins of a Solar Empire is finally up, in order to coincide with its retail release in the UK this week. I bought via download, direct from Stardock months ago, and other than WoW, it's been the only thing that's been able to tide me over until Mass Effect finally arrived. If you've not bought it yet, because you're some kind of freak who actually likes manuals and disks cluttering up the place, I do recommend you give it a try, albeit with the same caveat I give at the end of the review: it's big, fairly clever and rather complicated, so takes some getting to grips with. It's a fine game, though and one you can easily lose yourself in for a few dozen hours at a time.

Mass Effect continues to push all the right buttons. I'm about a third of the way through my second play-through (with an Adept character). The Biotic powers are really rather cool. The Singularity power is particularly rewarding when you create what's essentially a mini-Black Hole in the middle of a group of enemies and they get thrown up into the air, sucked into the singularity and then ripped apart. The Throw power is also rather good, since you can target enemies hiding behind cover and then use the object they're hiding behind as a weapon to crush them (assuming that it's something like a crate, rather than an immoveable wall), and the Barrier ability gives you a massive shield boost, letting you tough it out nicely in a firefight, too. Though while the combat is nice, whichever character class you pick, it's the little incidental details that I'm really noticing.

For example, the animation of the characters when they're running is really well done. In KotOR, for example, when you were running around your character stayed bolt upright when you turned. In Mass Effect, you can see the character shifting their weight and leaning into the turn as they change direction, and the faster you turn, the further they lean over to maintain their balance. It's a little thing, having avatars that obey the laws of motion (rather than sliding about rigidly like a robot), but it really makes me smile. I also enjoy using the thrusters on the Mako to do some limited vehicular acrobatics on the planets. Give me physics and I will play with it...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Byte: Massively Effective

You may have noticed it's been a bit quiet around here lately. There's a very good reason for that. I've been mainlining Mass Effect on PC for the last week, so I haven't had any spare time to devote to the diverting niceties of blogging. Now that I've finished the game, I'm going to talk about it, with huge amounts of spoilers, so if you have any intentions of playing the game, here's the short version of my verdict before I get to the things that might ruin it for you: It's absolutely brilliant. It's not a revolutionary step up from Knights of the Old Republic - if anything, it doesn't do much to veer from the typical Bioware formula of that game - but the combat is so well implemented, that you're not really going to care. For me, it plays like a very talky FPS, rather than an RPG, but the implementation of RPG skills in the FPS model is much smoother than in something like Deus Ex. From me, all you're going to get is an unreserved recommendation to buy it. It's terrific.

And now, the analysis and 5P0IL3RZ. Leave now if you don't want to be thoroughly spoiled. Really. Last chance now...

Firstly, let's get the sex out of the way. When Mass Effect was released, there was a huge ruckus in the US about it featuring "full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex" and "the most realistic sex acts ever conceived"... Suffice to say that these statements were made by people who'd never played the game and that these comments, to crib a phrase from Boris Johnson (Grud forbid) are an inverted pyramid of piffle. Actually, I'd go stronger than 'piffle'. I'd go so far as 'bullshit'. Frankly, you see more tits'n'ass and explicit sex on Springwatch... (Randomly, Kate Humble has got lovely hair) and it's about as offensive - that is, not at all. The phrase "much ado about nothing" springs to mind.

I sexed Ashley, because she's terrific. Sassy, confident, funny, a kickass soldier and not afraid of speaking her mind, she's a brilliant character. She even beats KotOR's Bastila as the NPC I most have the hots for. I most like her not because her ass looks great in a combat hard-suit (though it does) but because she's got the best lines, some of which are spectacularly inappropriate. A good example is early in the game where you pay a visit to a "gentlemen's club" on the Citadel and she comments "Here we are, one million light years away from Earth and we're in a bar where men are looking at women shaking their asses on a stage. I can't decide whether that's funny or sad." And she doesn't even bat an eyelid if you decide you want to sit down to watch a dance. You've got to love a girl like that. She even quotes Tennyson and Whitman (in context, to boot!), but her best line has got to be near the end where you have to choose between her and Kaiden splitting off from the main team to accompany a Salarian recon team to make a diversionary attack while you try and plant a nuke at the Main Bad's Evil Lair: "Why is it whenever someone says "with all due respect", they really mean "kiss my ass"?" She's absolutely adorable.

It's a bit of a shame (if unsurprising) that the rest of your Ship of Fools (or as Richard would call them, 'The Ship of Extras') aren't quite so memorable, but I did like Wrex a lot and the rest of the cast are actually verging on being useful in a firefight (rather than the norm of only two being worth a damn and the others just being there for colour), which is surely breaking some kind of law. I went through most of the game with Ashley and either Wrex or Garrus: mainly for sheer firepower; swapping Wrex with Garrus whenever I needed hacking abilities rather than biotic effects (my character was a straight Soldier class). For the random on-planet rambling with the Mako rover, I took the techies (Tali and Kaiden or Garrus) if only to allow me to hack into artifacts and loot more easily, so I managed to find a use for pretty much all of the characters, even if I tended to favour just a couple of them for the main story missions.

The voice actors, typically for a Bioware game, are well-cast, particularly Seth Green as Joker and Lance Henriksen as Admiral Hackett, though the biggest props have to be awarded to Jennifer Hale, who does the voice work for the lead character if you choose to play as the deadlier gender of the species. Cam "Bloody" Clarke makes his obligatory appearance, bless him, though thankfully not in a lead role this time. It's bad enough having to suffer Carth Mark II as the hetero-romantic lead for a female character, but at least it's not Sky Mark II... honestly, I'm sure Cam Clarke is a nice enough guy, but... that voice. Brrr...

As you would expect, the other production values are first rate: the musical score is excellent - at times reminiscent of the Vangelis score for Blade Runner - and the script is first rate in execution, if not in originality. It's a shame that The Big Moral Dilemma you're given towards the end of the game (whether to leave behind Ashley or Kaiden to be nuked along with Saren's Evil Lair) is totally undermined as an emotional choice by the level of characterisation between the two of them. I never felt much empathy with Kaiden at any point in the game - and he's made almost completely redundant by the other Biotic and Tech specialists within the game. So it wasn't really that hard of a decision - the fact I was romancing Ashley didn't really matter; Kaiden was always going to be the more expendable - though at least it was nice to see that Ashley did have a guilty reaction afterwards. It will be interesting to see whether the reaction changes with a female player character... sorry, Kaiden, but as a girl player character, I'm going to be sexing the slinky blue alien... I'm going to let you get the hots for me, then I'm going to leave you to die. Deal with it, sucker! Hey, I didn't select the Ruthless trait for nothing, you know.

I've got a couple of secondary characters on the go at the moment: a Vanguard (combat/biotic), an Infiltrator (combat/tech) and an Adept (biotic specialist). I'm furthest in with the Vanguard (almost halfway) though I'm probably going to concentrate most on the Adept, since the biotic powers are rather cool in combat. A lot of people have basically said they're a Jedi class without the lightsaber, and I can see where they're coming from with that - but I think that's a little unfair.

Mass Effect does have a great sense of being its own universe, with a strong visual aesthetic, its own history and lore, and it's all the more seductive for it. The dreams have started already... It's a bit of a shame that they didn't open the galaxy up a little more - that you can't explore the galaxy more and see more colonies - but I guess that clashed with the "race against time" plot: that is, you're on a critical mission to hunt down a rogue special forces operative before he unleashes a force that will annihilate all life in the galaxy, but you've still got time to do dozens of petty errands and trivial tasks for all and sundry... Hopefully in the sequel we'll be given a bit more of a free rein and a license to muck about around the galaxy at leisure, and not have to pay lip service to a plot that by rights should demand your immediate and undivided attention, but ultimately will make the bad guy wait around until you're good and ready to turn up and sort him out.

Overall, Mass Effect is a worthy successor to KotOR. It's got a good story, excellent characters, looks awesome, has a lovely script and score, it's well acted, and the combat is deeply satisfying. If I had to pass a score judgment... 9/10, easy. It's worth playing for Ashley's sass and class alone. I'm not too fond of the transferal of the whole "achievement" thing from the 360 version - so much so that I've not even bothered to find out how to check which ones I've even gotten - because if you get anal about it, the achievements are almost dictating terms to you as to how you should be playing the game: as if you can't enjoy the game unless you're "achieving" something. Whatever the hell happened to just having fun? But this is a minor criticism, and not just of Mass Effect. I really hope that this kind of thing doesn't become endemic, because I don't like being told how to play my games, or somehow being told that "you need to do this before you can say you've had fun". I like to define my own terms, whether it's nailing a Geth Rocket Trooper with a headshot or chuckling at Ashley saying how she'd like to show me her dance moves in a Citadel nightclub, I don't give a monkey's scrotum if that's deemed worthy of an "achievement" in the eyes of the developer or not. Anyway, it's a superb game, and it's going straight into my Top 5. It might even supplant KotOR as my most completed game. Hell, it's kept me away from World of Warcraft for an entire week, and there aren't many games I can say that about...

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Byte: Massively Sinful

This month finally brings some succour to PC gamers, for whom 2008 has been a pretty barren year so far. The UK finally gets a retail release of Sins of a Solar Empire in a couple of weeks, so I've been taking a look at it for, who put up the Q&A preview I did for them. It's a very interesting and ambitious game - expect to see my review go up in the next week or so.

However, the really big title out on PC this month is Mass Effect, which it's pretty fair to say is rather bloody awesome - well worth the wait. I got to have a fairly brief flirt with the 360 version before Christmas at the launch party and was very impressed. Having put in about half a dozen hours in on the PC version so far, as conversions go, it's looking an absolute corker.

Obviously the game is graphically impressive, but that's not what really strikes me as being the hook that draws you into the game. Typically for a Bioware game, the production values are fantastic, with a great voice cast, all the characters are interesting and strongly defined, but it's the completeness of the game world that's the most seductive. A lot of people have summed up/dismissed Mass Effect as "Knights of the Old Republic without lightsabers", but I think that's a little unfair. Sure, the games do share a lot of similarities in the structure of the RPG mechanics, but the combat system is very different from KotOR and the game world feels very different. Humans are the young galactic upstart race, rather than the masters of the universe - though being AMERICANS IN SPACE, they have an insufferably high opinion of themselves, making relations with the rest of galactic races somewhat strained, to say the least. Already I can see a lot of replay value in the game, since you can play to the stereotype of being a xenophobic, pro-human dick or not, and Bioware usually do a better job than most developers in giving the player a sense of feedback as to the effects of the morality and consequences of their actions.

I'm not sure whether it'll get as many replays as KotOR, but it should certainly keep me from overdosing on the old Warcrack for a few weeks.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bark/Byte: Has it really been a week?

I haven't posted in a while, it seems, so here's a general roundup of what's going on.

The ongoing drama with the constant headaches remains ongoing, and I'm scheduled to see a neurologist a little bit later in the month. I'm a little in two minds about this - part of me wants the problem to just go away, while another part almost wants a serious diagnosis, if only to justify the weeks of pain, stress, and sleepless nights. It's like I'd be really, really annoyed if the root cause of it all was something utterly mundane. Time will reveal all, no doubt. At least I've been given some time off work until it's sorted out, which relieves some of the burden, and it does give me time to finish off the redecoration of the bathroom.

I understand now why people pay specialists hundreds of pounds to come in and re-tile their bathrooms. I'm about halfway through the job, and we're just getting to the fiddly bit (that is, trimming tiles to make them fit around the sink and toilet cistern). It's gone quite well so far and is looking rather good, but I'm not exactly going to rush to volunteer to do it again. Still, I can console myself that I'm saving enough money to fund a holiday by doing it myself. I'll link to some photos when I've finished, and hopefully you'll be suitably impressed.

Being ill for the last few weeks has had a few unexpected knock-on effects. Namely, when I have been able to get past the insomnia (you try getting to sleep when you've got headaches that just DON'T GO AWAY), I've been having some very odd dreams. In the past week these have included a dream about being in a school where my best friend was a Natascha McElhone-type girl who could transmogrify into a tabby cat (See what I did there? Oh, please yourselves...) and used her ability to spy on all the bitchy school cliques, and a dream about being in a haunted house in deepest, rural Finland. No, I don't understand the logic, either.

I've not really been in the mood for gaming recently - Fleur thinks that spending time in front of an LCD screen isn't good for you when you've got headaches (though watching a huge LCD TV is fine, apparently). I've kind of hit the wall again with WoW. All my characters are either too far from the next level to seriously think about levelling them in an evening's play, or my attention span is just too fragile at the moment to concentrate on a long term goal, such as putting five levels on my Priest alt, so that I can get the next stage of Tailoring skill. Now that Richard is in Outland, I'm fairly tempted to play with him and level my Hunter, but I'm not sure I can really find enough time to dedicate to that at the moment. My Canadian buddy Chris is also playing pretty heavily at the moment, and I suppose I should give him the same amount of low-level help I gave to Richard, especially given that it's my fault I dragged him into playing WoW in the first place... it would be a bit rude just to leave him to it, though he's not doing so badly, if truth be told. I've also been neglecting my Mage recently. I'm tempted to re-spec her to Frost and see how that goes, but again, WoW just eats so much time and I'm not sure I've got the will to sink that much into it right now.

I did reinstall and replay Jedi Academy at the weekend, because the missions can be played through pretty quickly and it's a nice game just to dip in and out of. I completed the whole thing in about five hours flat (over two sittings), using the God code, naturally. When you ramp up the g_saberrealisticcombat variable to 10 so that you're chopping off limbs, slicing through waists and necks at the merest touch of your lightsaber, it would be pretty frustrating to play it otherwise.

I also tried reinstalling Beyond Good and Evil, thanks to being inspired by the recent announcement of a sequel, but the game runs so damn fast on my dual-core Athlon (there's no frame rate limiter on the PC version) that it's utterly unplayable. I might try it again, using the processor affinity settings in Task Manager to run it on just one of the CPUs (a trick I use with Deus Ex), but I'm not sure how much of a difference that will make. It would be a shame if I weren't able to play it again before the sequel comes out, because I did think it was a terrific little game.