Friday, August 29, 2008

Byte: Oh no...

The Trials 2 dreams have started. If this keeps up for too long I'll be waking up with motion sickness.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Byte: Our last, best hope for fun times

My fingers hurt. I spent last night playing Trials 2 Second Edition, after being tipped off about how good it was in a comments thread on RPS (I know this is old, but it didn't form a blip on my radar at the time it came out). For any of you who haven't heard of it, it's basically the old TV series Kickstart as a game, except with more extreme tracks, broken bones, crazy physics and fatalities,and rather less Peter Purves. Have a look at the videos, if you're still a bit fuzzy on the concept.

I'm only really starting to make headway with the medium difficulty tracks now (I FINALLY completed one track last night after twelve minutes bashing away with a craptacular ONE HUNDRED faults), and despite having a degree in Physics, my poor brain struggles with some of the coordination required to time leaps, suspension bounces and flips. The only achievement (not that I give a crap about "achievements", as you know) I have so far is the one for killing the rider in a single fall. Actually, I'm very good at killing the rider, in some of the most gruesome ways. Falling into fire-filled pits, getting brained by overhanging pipes, face-planting into walls... you name it. The game has the most evocative pain grunts since Porrasturvat, and I have to stop myself from crying in laughter at some of the ways my poor rider smashes bones.

It's just as well that failure is so much fun, because otherwise the game could be a pretty frustrating experience, as some tracks are very hard to complete in anything other than a single fluid ride. You often don't seem to always get enough track to build up sufficient momentum to clear the next section if you restart from a checkpoint, which really ups the fault rate until you get so pissed off you restart the track from scratch or quit the track entirely. And just to make you feel really inadequate, you can watch replays of other people on the high score table, to see how it's done without breaking the rider's back. The mind boggles as to how much time some of these guys must have put into the game to be able to nail hard tracks without a single fall - I'm barely capable of doing the easy tracks without faults, and even then I'm a good five or ten seconds off the pace. (I think my best time on one of the tracks puts me up around the 3000 mark on the worldwide scores table) But being able to watch replays for everyone who's ever completed the track is a fantastic way of learning how to tackle the tracks, and you'll see that people with similar scores to you often approach tracks in a completely different way to you and wipe out at completely different points.

The best thing for me, however, is the simplicity of control. You control the bike using just four keys: throttle, brake, lean rider forward, lean rider back. It sounds simple, and it is, but within that there's a lot of subtlety as you balance the throttle against your centre of gravity and the adhesion and slope of the track. More complex techniques, like spring jumps (using the compression of the suspension as a catapult effect) require a lot of work to get the timing right, but just feel so awesome when you pull them off, such as when you use a spring jump at the end of a ramp to launch yourself fifteen feet into the air onto a raised platform. Even better are the loop ramps, which often require you to get your speed and momentum Just So, in order to do a backflip onto a platform from which you perform the next jump.

The track design is brilliant - fiendish in places, and judging from the standard of the medium tracks which I've unlocked so far, incredibly unforgiving at times. I was close to weeping last night when I failed one jump (the final obstacle on the Too Many Tires track) for the thirtieth time in a row, but that only made it all the sweeter when I finally cracked it. Despite the incredibly steep learning curve (more like a learning cliff), the game's a lot of fun to play, and because the tracks aren't too long, you can play it in bite-sized chunks, making it compulsively moreish. If you've not tried it yet, I heartily recommend it. You'll play it until your fingers ache.

And just to console you while you're getting your rider's legs, here's some reassurance that even the well-practiced stuff it up every now and again. Classy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Byte: Losing... Will... To... Live!

Right. I'm really getting desperate now. The much-vaunted review copy of Space Siege I was due to get this week hasn't arrived yet, meaning that unless I want to plug yet even more of my real so-called life into my virtual so-called life, I've got to start scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with some kind of PC gaming experience that could remotely adhere to the labels of "novel" and "enjoyable"...

Fellow former-State stalwart, beemoh, recommended I try a game with the snappy acronym YHTFTE. It scores highly on the "novel" scale, but slightly less so on the "enjoyable" scale, since I now CAN'T GET THAT BLOODY TUNE OUT OF MY HEAD. Thanks for that, Mark. THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

The early reviews of Space Siege seem to suggest that I'm not exactly missing much, but at this point I just want to play something NEW. And I'm willing to approach it with an open mind, because I really like the way Chris Taylor approaches the way he makes games, even if I don't end up being mad keen on the games themselves. He's one of the industry's genuine auteurs and characters - kind of like Peter Molyneaux on Speed *and* LSD, but without the tendency to promise the Moon on a stick with chocolatey frosting, and then not deliver on it. Much like the way that some people will watch a film by Kubrick and think "well, that was no great shakes now, was it?", I think Chris Taylor can go into that same category. His absolute passion and commitment to videogames is similar, and, much like Kubrick, the way he actually implements them is definitely for the discerning hardcore. Though I've seen recent interviews with him that suggest this approach is going to change for future titles. Like he says here, who wants to play a game where you're put to work for half a dozen hours before you can even understand how to play the game? I absolutely agree with him - in fact, it's something I've been talking about for a couple of years now - the trend towards more accessible games (with the Nintendo platforms in particular) growing the player base. So I'm going to keep an open mind on Space Siege and review it on its merits, even if my expectations of the game now aren't what they were a fortnight ago. Perhaps I'll find an angle in there other reviews haven't... or maybe it's just pants. I'll have to wait and see. I'll link the review when it's up - probably in the next week or two.

After that I should be getting my hands on the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher. This was one of my favourite games from last year, so I'm really looking forward to this. I'm not sure what that says about the utter dearth of good RPG titles released between now and its original release date (nothing good, I suspect), but I'm intrigued to see how the game stands up nearly a year after the initial release and just how much work CD Projekt Red put into it. I'm not sure if I mentioned this, but since I wrote the initial review, I did go out of my way to pick up the short stories the game was based on a little earlier this year - and you know what? They're bloody good. If you're a fan of fantasy writing, they're well worth a read, and it does give you a lot of the backstory on Geralt that's only touched on by the original version of the game. I'm hoping that they're going to publish translations of the other Witcher books to coincide with the release of the Enhanced Edition of the game, because I devoured the short stories (nearly 300 pages worth) in a little over an afternoon. Sapkowski has a really nice style that robustly survives translation (unlike some translated authors I've read, such as Fred Vargas - an author favoured by a lot of my French friends - who translates into English as a sub-Dan Brownian author of the dullest banality and cliché; the translation of Have Mercy on Us All is particularly uninspiring) and I finished The Witcher short stories really wanting to read a lot more.

But anyway, I digress... So with the two review copies I'm after not having arrived yet, and Spore still being a couple of weeks away, I'm left with a PC gaming gap I'm struggling to fill. So earlier this evening I took the plunge, suitably inspired by the revised Dawn of War II trailer (now with added Tyranids!) to complete my Dawn of War collection by adding its final expansion, Soulstorm, to my Steam games list. Of course, it's going to be hours yet until it finishes downloading... which is why I'm writing this in the first place. My boredom is your gain, dear readers. That is, until I'm boring you to tears as well, in which case, misery does love company...

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bark: Irony

'You're black', says pot. 'Look who's talking', replies kettle.

But in terms of classy hypocrisy, you've really got to love our own David Milliband, who said of the Georgian crisis: "force is not the basis for resolving difficult issues and is not the basis for international relations in the twenty first century" - you could have bloody well fooled me!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Byte: A good idea or dangerous nostaglia?

I've been toying with the idea of buying up some internet real estate recently; the purpose of which I haven't quite sorted out in my head yet...

The whole catalyst behind this was me thinking about moving this blog to my own webspace and consolidating it with my old Ravings of Mad Iain blog, so that I have all my web-ramblings in one place, and possibly because I'm getting a little dissatisfied with the limits of the the Bark and Byte structure I've imposed on this blog and want to move on to something a bit more freeform. It's probably overkill buying a domain just to host a blog (though the rather enticing domain name is still unregistered...), so I had the rather dangerous thought of whether I could use the site to host a forum as well.

I do occasionally miss not frequenting forums these days, but I'm never quite sure whether that's just rose-tinted nostalgia for the "glory" days of State or not. At points I remember that being involved with an internet forum is like being subjected to unanaethetised dental surgery carried out by an LSD-soaked chimp armed with a claw hammer, so I do question the wisdom of the thought of starting one up again. Running an internet forum properly (that is, smothering it with enough dictatorial love to prevent it from exploding into a ball of fractious neuroses) eats up a huge amount of time, and I simply don't have that amount of time to spare. But part of me is curious to do it, just to see what would happen...

Of course, it wouldn't be State. It wouldn't even be State 2.0 - I think I've burned far too many bridges on that score - but I do miss having a place where I can talk about videogames without things instantly descending into rampant fanboyism and petty flame wars. I'd have to come up with a new name and a new angle (example: I'm definitely tempted to register, if only to cybersquat it), but after (what is it now?) two years or more since State discombobulated and decapitated itself, I'm surprised not to have found even a close spiritual successor. Not that I've exactly been looking hard for one, but I would have expected word to have reached me by now if there was one. Anyway, thinking about about doing something is one thing - actually whipping up the enthusiasm and making the time to actually *do* it is quite another... Perhaps if enough people say "go on, do it" and pester me about it for the next six months, I might try and set something up, but I wouldn't hold your breath...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Byte: A Most Productive Evening

Thank goodness for World of Warcraft. If it wasn't for WoW I probably would have abandoned gaming entirely by now. I spent last night working on my two lowest level alts (my Paladin Iphigeneia and my Warlock Kaeleigh), putting two levels on my Pally and one level on my 'lock, within the space of about two and a half hours. I really ought to be concentrating on Yonn, my Hunter, now that he's "just" eight levels away from reaching 70, but it's pretty hard going solo. Before I sodded off to Scotland for a week, at least I did put in a couple of days in with Shareth doing dailies so that I could buy Yonn his Swift Stormsaber, so at least he's not going to be pottering around on a slow mount from now on. I also used Shareth to fund the low level mounts for Tarithel and Corleth, since they reduced the cost and level requirement for riding training from level 40 to 30 in the last patch. Not that having a mount is a particularly large motivation to play with a character, however - my Mage has been languishing at level 40 for months... As usual, any attempt at concentrating on any one particular character is being spoiled by my short attention span and craving for variety. So I'm switching around between characters while they're accumulating rested state so that I can level them quicker. Still, I'm quite enjoying the novelty of playing with a Paladin and Warlock at the moment. I've flirted with the classes before, but never really put this much time into them. It will probably take months before they get up to and beyond level 30, but at least the sense of progress is more easily gained down at lower levels. I'm really not looking forward to finishing off that nasty 30-45 stretch with my Mage, Priest and Rogue, but I have to work on Tarithel for at least another five levels so that she can acquire the next level of Tailoring skill. In the continuing absence of anything else to play, and my girlfriend being due to fly off to see her parents for 10 days this weekend, I'm sure I'll have a lot of time over the next couple of weeks to devote to racking up a few more levels.

I'm getting pretty fed up of waiting for something even mildly interesting to come out, and we're still at least a month away from Spore and a couple of months away from Wrath of the Lich King being released. Between now and Spore the only thing that comes close to getting me beyond totally apathetic is Space Siege. I didn't quite get around to playing its spiritual prequel, Dungeon Siege, though I've been tempted to pick it up many times. The thing that interests me about Space Siege isn't so much what I've heard about the game itself, but more that it's by Gas Powered Games. Their titles usually try and do some interesting and innovative things and I'm quite interested to see what they do with the whole story hook about the main character having to sacrifice his humanity in order to preserve the remaining survivors of the human race. I don't expect Mass Effect levels of brilliance, as I'm sure the core gameplay itself will be pretty flashy-hacky-slashy, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and it's more the story that raises this beyond a mere passing irrelevance. And being frank, it's not like there's anything else around right now that warrants my interest instead. I'm going to try and blag a review copy, since I've not written anything in ages (mainly because of the total dearth of things worth writing about than anything else), and my fingers are itching to sharpen their critical knives on something. Hell, I'd even review something that was total shite in a box as long as it was new... I've not savaged a game in a very long time either, and sometimes you need to play something rubbish in order to get an idea of what's really good.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bark: Ten days and two thousand miles later...

...and I'm back from my Grand Tour of Scotland. As you can see, I took plenty of photos. I will get around to adding descriptions later. Possibly.

As holidays go, we went for bewildering variety, rather than any consistent theme, taking in places as diverse as Glasgow's School of Art, an RSPB osprey sanctuary just outside Aviemore, a whisky distillery north of Inverness, several museums and no less than four castles. We even spent a day in the Lake District, where I tracked down the first house I remember living in. I found it fairly easily, mainly because Staveley isn't that big a village, and I distinctly remembered living within a stone's throw of the local Spar, which refreshingly is still a Spar.

At the weekend we broke up the journey south by paying my parents a visit, as it almost coincided with my Dad's 60th birthday (actually tomorrow). We'd kept the whole thing a secret, especially the part about my brother (who I'd not seen since he moved to the Outer Hebrides about five years ago) coming down with his wife and three boys too. We got my parents dolled up to the nines and dragged them out to York on Saturday, sending the girls off on a shopping expedition, while Rob, Dad and I went to the National Rail Museum with the boys. Later we took them to the Biltmore Bar and Grill for a slap up meal (Mum had never eaten fillet steak before and found it worth the wait), the bill for which (six adults and three kids) ran significantly into three figures. It was worth every penny, though - if only for the look on Dad's face when we told him what we were going to do when everyone got together on Saturday morning. Gobsmacked is not the word. Or perhaps it is...

Mum (who turns 60 in a couple of years) said that she didn't want nearly so big a fuss for her 60th birthday, which, naturally, was a red rag to a bull. Rob and I haven't quite started preparations yet, but I get the feeling we're going to do something much more grandiose for her. Well, you've got to be nice to your Mum, haven't you? Otherwise Mr. T would be very disappointed with you...