Saturday, December 19, 2009

Byte: Maker watch over us all.

I'm taking advantage of my first free weekend in literally months to finally get around to installing my copy of Windows 7 Pro (64-bit), that I bought for next to nothing, thanks to my status as a student teacher. There's always that sense of apprehension that you get whenever a hard drive wipe is involved, but my old XP Pro installation was starting to get bloaty, slow and flabby, so the hard drive needed a good clean up anyway. I've got everything backed up on my lovely little Western Digital external hard drive, so at least I don't have to go through the bother of installing WoW and all my Steam games from scratch again. And I remembered to back up all my save games as well - much as though I do love it, I don't fancy replaying those 40+ hours in Dragon Age to get back to where I'd played up to last night.

So this afternoon will be spent playing about with a new operating system and reinstalling software, drivers, apps and all that fun stuff. That might not sound exciting to you, but it sure beats the hell out of lesson planning. Though I don't have to do any of that for another month, since my first teaching placement finished rather anti-climatically yesterday, thanks to the snow. I didn't want to risk trashing my car driving a 70 mile round trip into and out of London when its snowing. Anywhere south of Harrogate seems to think it's the next Ice Age if a single flake of snow settles on the roads, so I bailed on the trip - it wasn't like I was teaching lessons anyway, so I think I was entirely justified.

So with two work-free weeks stretching out before me like the welcoming arms of a comely maiden with low moral standards, I can look forward to getting some serious writing and gaming done. As I'm going to be spending a lot of the holiday in Alsace (where they seriously know how to do Christmas properly, not the commercialised crap with rubbish TV we get over here), so I'm going to be reduced to using my netbook, rather than my consoles and my ever-aging games PC. This isn't such a bad thing, as my NC10 is capable of running a few games quite well, such as Trials 2, GTA: Vice City, Beyond Good and Evil (after I played about with the sounds and graphics options to get the soundtrack and the animation to sync up properly) and the obvious netbook type games, like Osmos (an intriguing little indie game), Plants vs. Zombies and the almost inevitable Peggle. Even KOTOR and Dawn of War run passably on it, though that is really stretching the capabilities of the graphics chip. After Christmas I will probably try upgrading the RAM in both my games rig and my netbook, to eke out a bit more performance for the least amount of money possible (I am, after all a penniless student - a penniless, Scottish student, to boot).

But I think I will try and spend quite a bit of time over Christmas writing. I've not done any games writing at all since I started the PGCE, and while I've been far to busy to actually find the time to do any, I do miss the whole process of writing. So I think I will try to either start a film script or maybe write a short story (or at least make a start on one). The length of the holidays to get some serious writing done was one of the things that influenced my decision to turn my back on industry and go into teaching. So it would be a shame to waste the opportunity of getting some writing done.

Anyway, I've been rambling on for far too long now, and I've successfully imported all my games from Steam into Windows 7 using my external hard drive, so I've got to get back to convincing Leliana to sleep with me. If I don't update again before the New Year, enjoy the holidays and I hope Santa brings you something nice.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Byte: The inevitable "games I've played this year" post

I should note that this isn't a "game of the year" post, since quite a few of the games I'm going to mention weren't actually released in 2009. And I'm not really going to be passing a judgment on what the best game of the year is, either - mainly because I've not played as many games this year as I'd usually do, thanks to my recent change of career. Instead, this is more a list of the stuff I've enjoyed playing this year, regardless of how old it is. Oh, and there will be plot spoilers throughout the post, so reader beware...

Trials 2: Second Edition - PC

I bought this as a Steam gift for my young apprentice, Phil (the eldest son of some friends of mine) and we had about three months of competition between ourselves, to see who could post the best times on the tracks. Damnably, Phil's better at the game than I am, but thanks to our friendly rivalry, my ranking has soared (it was up to the 3100 mark at one point - which isn't bad out of a player base topping 91,000) and I've finally started to crack a couple of the Hard tracks, though I've still got a lot of catching up to do to surpass some of Phil's scores on the Hard tracks. It's a game of both joy and frustration - there are times when you want to throw things at the monitor, but when you complete a Medium difficulty track without faults for the first time, it's one of those great gaming moments. The sense of achievement - real achievement, not some developer-defined tick-box - is amazing. Just like in the old days, when games had no quickload or quicksave and you had to progress via genuine skill, not just bludgeoning persistance. It's a game where practice really pays off. Practice might not lead to perfect necessarily, but certainly to a few less bone-breaking falls.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - PC

This was probably the first Big Game of the year. As regulars will know, I'm not much of an RTS fan, but the first Dawn of War has to rate as one of my favourite games in the genre. I'm always going back to it so that I can build huge squads of Space Marines and then hoover up Orks and Eldar. Dawn of War II has a much more tactical focus than the original, and if anything played a lot more like an RPG than an RTS, so that was always going to be a bonus for me. I ploughed through the game pretty quickly - always a good sign - and enjoyed the story immensely, even if it was fairly generic in the end. I especially liked the ressurrection of Captain Thule as a Dreadnought, though I never did get the Assault Cannon for it on one of the scavenger hunts. Maybe I'll find it on a replay sometime. I don't think that the game is ultimately as replayable as the original, but I did like the fact that the missions were short, tightly designed and action-packed. And it's a lot prettier than the original, of course. But it's the wealth of tactical options that you have at your disposal that really makes the game stand out. I love using Assault Marines to perform hit and fade attacks on the enemy frontlines and draw your foes into ambushes, where you have your other squads attacking from cover as your Assault Marines and Force Commander get stuck in with melee weapons. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and play it...

Far Cry 2 - Xbox 360

When I first played Far Cry 2 on PC last year, I found it so uninspiring that I uninstalled it after about half an hour. I'm glad that I took a punt on it in one of HMV's '2 for £30' deals, as it turned out to be one of the few games that I completed this year. It's got quite a few flaws (not least all the bloody roadblocks and respawning cars full of thugs), and the story goes completely off the rails towards the end, but as a straight-up shooter it's one of the best I've played in a very long time. Possibly since Half-Life 2, in fact. It's a bit of a shame that they didn't do a little more with the inter-mercenary relationships, and the bit at the end when they all turn on you (forcing me to kill my beloved Nasreen, which I was most upset about) makes absolutely no sense at all. Neither did the way the game stops you from being able to kill the one person the whole game is set up for you to kill (The Jackal) - you can slaughter anyone except for the one person you're told explicitly to kill at the beginning of the game. I'm still trying to work that one out. But other than that, the freeform setting of the game and the shooty bits themselves were top notch. I even quite enjoyed the diamond hunts using the GPS. I also liked the implementation of the in-game map, which was pretty neat and immersive, even if some people didn't like the way the game didn't pause when you had the map open. I still dip back into the game every now and again, just to play about with the different weapon sets. I still get a warm feeling from that time I used the Dragonov sniper rifle to set off a fuel barrel and blow up a roadblock when a weapons convoy was passing through. My timing was perfect, and it was most amusing to see the AI go nuts, as I was perched up on a rock half a mile away, and they had no idea where the hell I was sniping from. Ah, such happy memories...

Fallout 3 - Xbox 360

Without doubt, one of my favourite games of the year. I never really played much of the first two games, so I didn't have any fanboy baggage to bring into the game with me. As a consequence, I really got into it very heavily, though I didn't quite get around to completing it. Whether you consider "Oblivion with guns" to be an epithet or not will undoubtedly sum up how well you'll get on with this game. I found Fallout 3 to be much easier to get into than Oblivion, however, and the levelling system is certainly a whole lot less broken. The VATS system didn't take long to convince me that it's possible to integrate turn-based combat well into a real-time game, and let's face it, shooting the heads clean off people in slow motion never really gets old. The game is perhaps a little too restrictive to begin with, though. If you venture too far off the beaten path too soon, you'll get your ass handed back to you on a silver platter with a nice garnish of your gizzards. Trying to take on a rocket launcher armed super-mutant with a pistol and an SMG is never really going to end well. But other than that, the game world is beautifully realised (though not exactly beautiful - this is a radioactive wasteland, after all) and the action is absolutely compelling. You're never going to forget the time you first hook up with the Brotherhood of Steel and fight your first super-mutant behemoth. I do intend to go back to Fallout 3 and polish it off at some point. I'm not sure when that will be exactly, but it's good enough for me to want to go back to it and not just leave it on the huge pile of unfinished games sitting underneath my desk.

NextWar - Xbox 360

This is probably the best game you've never heard of this year. I'd heard a lot about tower defence games over the last year or two, but wasn't sure if I'd get on with them or not, so never got around to playing one. But when I was up late (drunk) one night, trawling through the Indie games lists on Xbox Live Arcade, I stumbled across this little gem. The screenshots looked interesting (it's done in neon, 8-bit style vector graphics) and for the measley sum of just 80 MS points, I thought 'why the hell not?' And it turned out to be one of my best buys of the year. The map design has quite a bit of variety and I really like the strategy of placing your EMP and weapons towers in mutually supportive positions, so you get the maximum defence value from the smallest number of towers. I've stuck hours into this on the skirmish mode (and there's a campaign mode as well) and had lots of fun, obsessively micro-managing the placement and upgrade status of all my colourful little towers. It might not have the polish of something like Plants vs. Zombies, but it's a neat little game, well worth the tiny asking price.

The Path - PC

Well. What can I say about The Path that I've not already said? If you could truly call it a game, it would probably be my game of the year. It's beautiful, haunting, controversial, thought-provoking and challenges your preconceptions of videogames needing to be fun. It's the first real videogame for artists, hifaluting intellectuals and surrealists, and the finest endorsement of the game probably wasn't my 10/10 review on Videogamer, but the words "What's that? That looks interesting." coming out of the mouth of my girlfriend when watching me play it. Given that she normally treats videogames with the same kind of distain you'd give dog shit on the soles of your shoes, this is high praise indeed. It's not fun, it's not HD-pretty (though the design is absolutely gorgeous) and it's probably not even a game in the conventional sense, but for me it's one of the unmissable videogame experiences of the year.

World of Warcraft: The Lich King - PC

If my gorram ISP hadn't decided it would be a great idea to block the port used by WoW's login servers (rendering the game absolutely unplayable through terrible lag), I'd no doubt have my dr00d PvPing her way through Wintergrasp as a level 80 by now. In my mind, WoW's still the King of the MMO genre. I can't really describe what makes me keep wanting to go back to WoW - the game world just has such a hold on my imagination. Whether it's the story and lore, the aesthetics, or just whether it's such a nice world just to poke around and explore, I don't know. But I find it uniquely compelling, and if I could sort out my ponging ping problems, I'd still be hooked. One thing's for sure - I'm changing ISP before Cataclysm comes out next year.

Dragon Age: Origins - PC & Xbox 360

I freely admit that I'm a total sucker for Bioware's RPGs. Dragon Age is the ultimate modern take on an old school fantasy RPG - Baldur's Gate for the HD generation, if you will. It's obviously a Bioware RPG in that it has the same old generic structure to the story (Duncan = Gorion = Nihlus), and you've got to be stunningly blind if you don't see Loghain's betrayal at Ostagar coming from several miles away, but it is executed very well. Like KOTOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect before it, the game suffers from the fact that there are too many characters for your party, giving the game the old "ship of extras" (a.k.a. ship of fools) feel. Which is a shame, as some of the characters are brilliant. I'm very fond of Alistair's cheery sarcasm and Leliana is a constant ray of sunshine (even if her voice acting is a bit stilted at times). Morrigan is a little less convincing, since she's mainly there just for the side-boob. Though there is some nice needling tension between her and Alistair when you have them both in your party. It's everything I've come to expect from Bioware: good writing, lots of polish, good action and lots of stuff to do. I've not completed it yet, but I don't see myself putting it aside for something else anytime soon. I picked up both versions, since I don't always have a lot of time to play with my gaming PC, and it's definitely true that the PC version is superior to the 360 version, but given the limitations of the control set, the 360 version is eminently playable. It is a shame that they blunted the texture quality, but if (like me) you're more interested in the characters and the story than you are with the shinies, it's still worth picking up, especially if you don't have a PC that can handle it. If I do have one big criticism of the game though, it does have to be the obsession with gore. It's pretty hard to take a game seriously when you're trying to have a tender, romantic moment and both of the potential lovers are splattered with blood. It also descends into farce in the sex scenes, since the girls don't even take off their bra and knickers to have a cuddle, and if one of them is covered in blood, it's even more hilarious. "Kiss me, but mind the darkspawn blood. It'll kill you."

Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy

I know I said I'm not much of an RTS fan, but this expansion was a little beauty. I can do RTS when it's done on as grand a scale as this. SOASE still reminds me of Star Wars: Supremacy without the 'Star Wars' bit. Being able to put in starbases to defend your planets without fleets was a brilliant addition to an already excellent game. I'll never forget the first time I had a capital ship fleet being chased around the system by a Vasari starbase. It was like the Killer Rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. "Ahhhhhh! Run away! Run away!" Good times. I've already got the Diplomacy expansion pack pre-ordered, so will be checking out the beta in due course.

The major disappointments of the year

Firstly, Mirror's Edge - Xbox 360. I really liked the concept, but I couldn't get on with the game at all. This is mainly my fault for having old and flabby reflexes, but I never got into the game as much as I wanted to.

The Sims 3 - PC. I think I'm just about the only critic who didn't splurge love juice all over this. I LOVE Sims and Sims 2. Don't get me wrong. But I really didn't like Sims 3. I don't think that they really added enough to the formula to really make it worthwhile releasing the new one. I wasn't that impressed with the town - I thought that it gave you as many problems as advantages, not least in keeping track of what the hell your Sims were doing, and increasing the autonomy of the Sims seemed to actually miss the point as far as I was concerned. Your whole purpose as a player of Sims is to direct every aspect of their lives, according to your own twisted design. Giving them minds of their own and just sitting back to watch them defies the entire point of making it a game. Otherwise you might as well just watch Eastenders. As far as I'm concerned, definitely a mis-step for the franchise.

Things I am excited about for 2010

Mass Effect 2 - Xbox 360

I think I'll grab this on 360 rather than PC. It's Mass Effect. TWO. Need I say more?

Star Wars: The Old Republic - PC

It's Star Wars. It's Bioware. It's an MMO. It's probably the reason I will flunk my PGCE next year (if I do). I really want to see whether this will be able to take on Blizzard's masterwork.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm - PC

If I can sort out my ISP troubles, this will probably eat up a huge share of my gaming time next year.

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine - Xbox 360


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bark: The Hunter S. Thompson Method triumphs yet again!

As my first PGCE placement rapidly hurtles towards its conclusion, for the last week or so, I'd been getting increasing stressed about how I had a 3500 word essay on Science in the National Curriculum to write for next Wednesday, and despite the fact that I'd been given the spec of what to write months ago, I'd not even go so much as a title and document template created.

So yesterday I did the only reasonable thing, which was to send my lady off to meet a friend in London for the day, while I locked myself into the flat with a vast supply of alcohol, a huge plate of oven chips, a jar of Branston pickle and some of the finest post-rock and electropop ever to come out of Iceland and Norway, with the steely resolve not to go to bed until the damn thing was finished. Even if I ran out of booze.

Proving yet again that there is no motivation quite so good as last minute panic, I finished my masterpiece after a fourteen hour/eight pint writing marathon, finishing at a quite obscene 6:58am this morning. I seriously doubt that it's up to M-level standard, but at least I have something to hand in on Wednesday.

Of course, I've still got all my lessons to plan for next week between now and bedtime tonight, but hey, at least that's one less thing to stress about. And I'm on holiday as of 3pm Friday. And bloody hell, have I earned it...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bark: Weight loss guaranteed!

Stressed? Depressed? Overworked? Overweight?

Well, taking a teacher training course probably won't help with the first three things, but if the last month I've had is anything to go by, training to be a teacher does wonders for your waistline. I've lost over half a stone (5 kilos) in the last month and not even lifted a finger or flexed a bicep at the gym. I'm sure most of it is probably just the stress killing your sense of appetite, but actually spending the day stalking menacingly around a classroom, rather than sitting constantly behind a desk eating crisps, drinking fizzy pop and shunting numbers around spreadsheets all day must make quite a big difference to the number of calories you burn.

If I keep going on at this rate, by the end of the course I'll be as lean and wiry as I was before I started working in IT. And that would be a result.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bark: Hard work is good for the soul

At the time of writing, it's just past 10pm. This is quite literally the first free moment I've had since I woke up at 6.15am this morning. Today I've taught two pretty dreadful lessons (for various reasons), am suffering from just about every minor ailment known to Mankind thanks to all the bugs that the kids drag into the school, and I've got a two hour commute every day that eats up time I could otherwise use lesson planning.

People always moan about teachers getting long holidays. If the last few weeks I've had are anything to go by, bloody hell, we need them. Teaching makes working for a large multinational IT company look like a walk in the park by comparison. This is without doubt one of the hardest weeks I've ever had in my working life. But do I regret jumping ship?

Hell no.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Byte: My beautiful netbook

Eariler today I acquired a Samsung NC10 netbook, which I had been tech-lusting after for some time now. I bought it with roughly one quarter of my first installment of my PGCE training bursary, and consider it to be money very well spent.

Not only will I be using it for late night emergency lesson planning, but it is also a fine machine catered for mobile internet surfing and retro gaming. X-Com: UFO Defense (a.k.a. UFO: Enemy Unknown) runs brilliantly on it, while Trials 2: SE and the Steam version of Star Wars: Dark Forces also run passably well. Rumour has it that Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War (possibly my favourite old school RTS ever) ought to run decently on it as well, so I'm downloading that from Steam as I type.

I'm also going to be trying out Warcraft III, Diablo II and Starcraft on it, since I can now download them digitally, thanks to merging my WoW account into a account a few weeks ago. If I can stomach the download time, I may even try to download WoW and see how well that runs. It would be nice to have a backup machine to play WoW on after my gaming lapdog died earlier in the year, and since my new netbook has a VGA port, I can hook it up to my TV as an external monitor, so even if it doesn't have the processing power of my old laptop, at least I can get the big screen experience via my TV.

Gaming aside, easily the most impressive thing about using the netbook thus far is the battery life. I've not exactly been holding back on the screen brightness or the wifi access, but the battery is still going strong (good for at least another hour) despite having been hammered royally for a good five or six hours. Consider me mightily impressed. The keyboard is small but perfectly formed (just like Nichole from the Renault Clio adverts of yore)... comfortably large enough to type on without making typos every two seconds, but petite enough to not make you feel like you'd have been better off buying a full size laptop. The keys have a lovely soft spring to them as well - very tactile and comfortable to type on for extended periods of time. I approve.

I have been turning into somewhat of a Samsung fanboy of late (not only do I have one of their netbooks, but also an LCD monitor and LCD TV as well - they do make some outstanding LCD screens these days), and if you've been thinking of getting a highly portable laptop, it's hard to find a reason why you shouldn't pick up one of these beauties. Even Fleur (the French luddite that she is) looked at it longingly, as if amazed that someone as tech-macho as myself would be willingly seen with such a sleek, dinky piece of technology such as this.

Samsung may have come out with some newer model netbooks in the last few months (the 9 hour battery N140 being perhaps the pick of the bunch) but if you don't fancy paying the extra £50, the NC10 represents some pretty staggering value for money.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bark: Saturn equinox

A composite photo of Saturn taken by the Cassini probe last month. Absolutely stunning. If there was ever a one-way scientific mission out to Saturn, I'd be first in line to sign up. I dream of being able to go out into space and see this kind of stuff with my own eyes.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Byte: One last level rush

With my inter-career holiday break now almost over, I've really been ploughing an obscene amount of hours into three games lately, in a last grasp of game time before I spend the next ten months or so being stressed and having such a big workload that I won't have time to play anything.

Inevitably, one of them has been World of Warcraft (or as Fleur likes to call it, rather charmingly, World of Bullshit), as I've been putting time into my lower-level alts, if only to get them to skill-up their professions skills. My priest still needs another six levels before she can take the next level up in Tailoring and Enchanting, but her she can now do some really useful enchants, especially for my lower level alts. I don't really enjoy playing with the character that much, since priests aren't great for soloing with, and I don't really fancy respeccing to Holy, as I don't want to spend all my time healing in instances. But I do have some incentive for levelling her waiting for me in the bank. That and I've got about 40 stacks of Netherweave Cloth stashed away, so that once I do get the 300+ Tailoring skill unlocked, I can make lots of lovely stuff for my Mage, who is about to hit level 61 and is firmly entrenched in Outland, but since I blasted through Outland with my Death Knight not too long ago, I'm going to get back to her once I've made her loads of cool cloth gear to upgrade her all the way through from 60-70.

The recent 3.2 patch lowered all the level requirements and costs of the land mounts (level 20 for the first mount, level 40 for the swift mount) and flappy mounts are now available from level 60, though the swift flappy training will still set you back 5000 gold. Though that's not so much of an issue now, as they uprated the speed of the first flappy mount from +60% to +150%, so now the first flappy mount is at least faster than the swift ground mount. But the real bonus for me was that I hadn't training my Mage for the swift ground mount, so I got it at a discount - and at some point I will get my other characters to forward her some cash to buy the first flappy mount. So all my Alliance characters have the swift ground mount now, as I pushed my lowest level Alliance alt (Corleth, my rogue) up to level 40 over a couple of nights so that I could get one for him, too. Rogues are quite fun to play, and I've got quite a few rare armour pieces lurking for him in the bank for when he (eventually) gets beyond level 50, but I'm concentrating mostly on my Paladin, Gormlaith, at the moment.

At the beginning of the summer, she was on a par (in level terms) with Aoibheann, around level 40 or so, but I've been fairly streaking through the levels with her lately, and should get up past 50 with another couple of hours' worth of play. I think it certainly helped having an epic weapon to murder mobs with, but the Paladin is a really nice class to play, since they're resilient, can heal and aren't terrible in DPS terms, either. I do need to work on her blacksmithing skill though, as she can't really make any decent armour yet.

In all this, I even managed to find the time to put another level on my oldest character, Shareth, who is still a very long way away from the level cap. I haven't really played much with my 70+ characters at all lately, since even though I really like all the design in the Northrend areas, needing 1.5 million XP per level makes progress seem rather too much on the tortuous side for my liking. I will try to get at least one character towards the level cap in time for the next expansion pack (flappy mounts in Azeroth! about bloody time!), but I am enjoying going for the quick win with my alts. It would be good if I could get them all beyond level 50, but inevitably, I think I will get bored with a couple of my alts and then neglect them for a few months. I really ought to just use my high level characters to gold farm for a while and throw some cash at my alts to buy them some nice gear and the flappy mounts (when they can use them), but I'm not sure if I can be bothered to plan that far ahead. It's amazing that after four years and goodness knows how many days of playing time I've put into the game that I still love it, but somehow, I do.

But I just wouldn't be me if it weren't for the tendency to play at least five different games at the same time. Even WoW isn't able to consume all my gaming time. I've been dabbling a little with the old Delta Force games, since they appeared on Steam a little while back (I may knock off a Replay article about Delta Force 2 and try and convince Tim Edwards to print it) and I've been enjoying their retro charms a lot, but it's on the Xbox 360 where I've been spending quite a lot of my late evenings (and early mornings!). I picked up Trials HD from Xbox Live, and it's probably the best thing out on the 360 right now. It's got quite a few different game modes compared to the PC version, and lots of new tracks, though I think on the whole, I prefer the PC version - if only because the camera is better. The console version is a bit out there, compared to the PC version, with explosives littered around all the levels (obviously, it wouldn't be fun for the console crowd if things didn't explode), and it makes some of the levels ridiculously hard (and Trials wasn't exactly easy to begin with). Though if I don't really approve of that, the challenge modes (ski jumping, bone breaking, riding in a huge cage ball, for example) are fabulous fun. I really like the target collecting mode, which essentially turns your bike and rider into a pinball, as you're catapulted around the level by huge flippers. AWESOME. If you've not picked it up yet, it's well worth the 1200 MS points.

The other game that's really been eating my time lately has been Far Cry 2. I did pick this up on PC when it came out last year, but somehow it failed to spark with me. But something inspired me to pick it up on 360, and now that I've put 25 hours or so into it, I think it's one of the best shooters I've played since Half-Life 2. I'm about 60-odd percent through the main story missions, and I'm finding it absolutely compulsive. The game's not perfect by any means, as you can't travel more than 400 metres on a road before having to blast your way through a roadblock, which does get tiresome after a while, but there's a tactical freedom that you don't get in most FPS games. I've unlocked most of the weapons and there's a great balance and variety in the way you can kit yourself out. You can go super-stealth (silenced Makarov, silenced MP5, Dart Rifle), fully automatic (Uzi, AK-47, PKM), super-sniper (IED, Dragonov, Dart Rifle, or super-explosive (M79 grenade launcher, MGL grenade launcher, mortar), though obviously, doing that is a little on the extreme side, and you're better off having a good mix of weapons. My favourite loadout is to take the Dart Rifle to pick people off silently from a distance, have the silenced MP5 (which the game oddly classifies as an assault rifle, rather than an SMG) as your main weapon after you've picked off as many people as possible and need to get in close, and have an Uzi as your weapon of last resort, since it gives you a lot of close range killing power. Another good combination is to have the Dragonov sniper rifle to spring long range ambushes (I did this rather epically on a convoy destruction mission - as the convoy was passing through a checkpoint, I sniped an oil barrel, setting the whole place on fire, allowing me to pick people off safely from distance as they fled from the flames), backed up by the M79 grenade launcher (it's the one Arnie has in Terminator 2) to blow things (particularly vehicles) to hell from medium range and have the PKM light machine gun to mop things up if they get too close to take out with the Dragonov or the grenade launcher. Fire is also a great tactical option, as you can use Molotov cocktails to literally smoke people out of buildings or long grass, and it adds an element of confusion into the combat that you can generally use to your advantage.

So even if the game lacks a little in design terms (too many roadblocks and assault trucks magically appearing 20 seconds after you get into a vehicle), the combat itself is great and very satisfying. The game does get significantly harder in the second half, as the enemies start using better weapons. I messed up a stealthy approach on one particular mission and got a very rude shock when mortar shells started raining down. That got rather frantic, as I'm not only dodging mortar fire, but also having to fight a dozen goons who now know exactly where I am and are throwing orange smoke bombs to mark my position for the mortar guy... Yipe. And you can also expect to have a hard time if you don't take at least one scoped weapon with you, as there are snipers dotted around some of the roadblocks, too. But I haven't had too many frustrating deaths (they've generally been my fault for doing idiotic things), and I also like the buddy system. It's nice that they characters aren't all white, middle-class superheroes. There's a good, diverse mix of people in there. I've got a bit of a soft spot for Nasreen, the Tajik woman merc, who's rescued me a couple of times from botched missions. And I was doing really well with Paul in the first half of the game, too - but unfortunately, I had to give him a morphine overdose after he got too badly wounded during a story mission. I got quite upset about that, as we were up to 17 on buddy 'history' score. If the game tries to kill Nasreen, I will not be pleased... I might have to shoot a zebra in the face. Hell, I may just do that anyway. It ought to be more fun than running them over in a truck.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bark: I am not a personnel number, I AM A FREE MAN!

As I vaguely hinted at a couple of months ago, my life has taken a slight turn for the weird lately. And as my dear Hunter S. Thompson once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

If it appears that I've forsaken the internet in the last couple of months (as evidenced by an absolute dearth of new posts here and a very intermittent presence on MSN Messenger), well, there's a very good reason for that. I kind of have. For the last nine and a bit years, I've gotten very used to having the electric world at my fingertips for upwards of 12 hours a day, every day. This was a consequence of being sat behind an LCD monitor in my day job for 10 hours a day, and being stuck behind another LCD monitor for most of the evening, playing games, blogging or just surfing the websites I use to keep up with the events in a rapidly moving world. So, you might ask, what on Earth could tear me away from this wired, interconnected existence?

Well, rather devastatingly, a nagging sense that I wasn't doing all I could with my life. After nine years of work for a rather large multinational corporation, I found myself with a choice. I could either embrace the 80% work, 20% life culture that we laughably call a "work-life balance" and continue to be a slave to my job (albeit one with a decent salary), or I could quit my job, find another career and do something different. I made a decision a few months ago, the implications of which I'm still trying to get to grips with, even now.

To get to the bean-spilling, I left my life as a corporate worker bee behind at the beginning of July, and after the longest holiday of my entire life, in a little over a week, I go back to university. Me, a filthy student again. It's quite a bizarre notion, now that I'm on the wrong side of thirty years old. There are other details about my decision that I'm not going to go into here (for fairly obvious reasons); they're pretty much already in the public domain - so you don't need to read about them here - but that's the essence of it. Lots of people are absolutely fine with the 80%-20% work life balance you find in most large companies these days, but I found over the years that, increasingly, I'm not one of them. In fact, I consider myself lucky that not only did the people I used to work for help me make the decision more decisively than I might otherwise have done, but also helped make the whole thing a lot less financially painful than it might have been. I consider myself very lucky in this respect, and have no regrets about the time I spent with the company - it was a great place to spend my 20s and early 30s in the early part of my career, but I couldn't see myself there in another 20 years (or even 5 or 10 years), so when I saw the opportunity to move, I jumped at it like a lion pouncing on a wildebeest.

It takes someone very brave or very stupid to leave a well-paid career in the middle of the biggest recession since the 1920s, but the timing of everything was just too good to pass up the opportunity. In about a week, I start a PGCE in Secondary-level Science, with a specialism in Physics at Roehampton University. Science (and Physics in particular) has always been my first love, intellectually. I only really went into IT because it was a career a Physics graduate can get into pretty easily and get handsomely paid for doing so. Hell, the programming options in my Physics degree were my least favourite parts of the course (embarrassingly, I was a terrible programmer - there's a real irony that I was able to find someone willing to pay me to do it). What I really wanted to do was carry on with Physics, except that I spent too much time falling in love with Fleur in my second year and too much time playing Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D in my third year to really do myself justice academically (Again, I have no regrets - I'd do it all over again in an instant). So it's taken 12 years since I graduated, but I'm re-engaging with Science and Physics again in a major way, this time by teaching it, rather than studying or researching it.

Why become a teacher? Well, it's something I had a very long, very hard think about earlier in the year. There's an element of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", since not only is Fleur a teacher, but so are her parents, one of her sisters, my brother and my sister-in-law... So it's not like I don't have a realistic idea of what the profession is like. And even better, I've literally got decades of experience to tap into whenever I need to ask one of them for advice. My brother has always joked with me that there are only two reasons to be a teacher: July and August. The truth is that you can't really argue with 13 weeks holiday a year. If you're going to get worked half to death in whatever profession you opt for, go for one with proper holidays. But the main reason for wanting to become a teacher is that not only are Physics specialists in real demand (only about 5% of the people applying to do a Science PGCE are Physics specialists - 80% are biologists, with the remaining 15% being chemists - so if you're a Physics specialist, you've picked quite a safe profession in the long term), but I also think the time is right for me now. It wouldn't have been if I'd gone straight into teaching after leaving university (indeed, I once swore at the time I would never go into teaching), but now I've mellowed a bit (yes, really!), got some real life experience, and the favourite part of my old job was mentoring the IT placement students on their industry placement year. To steal a gag from Mass Effect - knowledge is like herpes: if you've got it, spread it around - and I found that I really enjoyed doing the spreading. Knowledge, information, has always been my drug (well, other than alcohol), which is why I was constantly plugged into Wikipedia and read huge volumes of the Children's Encyclopedia Britannica (a set of 24, as I recall) that my parents bought for me and my brother when we were in our early teens. There's no doubt that teaching is a high-workload, high-stress, underpaid, under-appreciated career for the most part - but it's also a whole lot more existentially rewarding than shunting numbers around an Excel spreadsheet for 10 hours a day. As a teacher, you're helping shape lives and have far more of a hands-on impact on the fabric of society than any corporate job. I have to confess that I find the prospect both exciting and no small part daunting.

I will try and keep this blog up to date with my progress throughout the year, but I can't guarantee how regular updates will be, as I'm not going to be spending much time at a computer during my course and teaching placements. Wish me luck... I'm going to need it!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bark: Feeling the heat

I'm Scottish. I'm not built for weather like this. Where's a traditional British summer (i.e. thirty days of unbroken rain) when you really need one?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Bark: The real big news story of the week

The mystery of how crop circles get created has finally been solved. It's nothing to do with aliens or hoaxers. No, it's wallabies off their heads after snacking on opium poppies.

Fucking awesome.

Bark: Michael Jackson broke the internet

Inconsiderate bastard.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bark: Why you should always buy Sennheiser

I'm going on a bit of a health kick for the summer, and unusually for me, I've hit the gym twice in the last three days. When I was getting ready to go to the gym tonight, I realised with a dawning sense of horror that my dear lady had just washed my gym kit, which was a bit ripe from my session on Sunday.

Unfortunately, she'd neglected to tell me that she was going to wash it before I saw it hung out on the line. The reason I was horrified was because I knew that Fleur had just stuck my kit straight into the washing machine without bothering to check the pockets (she never does) and I'd left my best set of mini-headphones in the pocket of my cycling shirt, as I use them to plug into the TVs on the cardio machines at my gym.

Over the years I've had a pretty terrible record with breaking sets of in-the-ear headphones (one of the reasons I upgraded to a set of wireless gaming headphones for my PC a little while back, because at least I can't accidentally pull the wires out of the earphones - usually by treading on the lead or moving too far away from the jack socket and almost taking my head off in the process - if there are no wires to pull out), so having had this set go through the wash, I wasn't confident about their chances of survival. Thankfully, they only went through at around 30 degrees (rather than a boil wash), so after they'd dried out, I tested them on my laptop and they still worked! And now they smell of lavender, which doesn't make any difference to the sound quality of the music, but does make the whole experience a little more pleasant, nonetheless.

Granted, earphones aren't exactly hugely complicated bits of electronics (they're just coils of copper wire and a couple of magnets wrapped up in plastic and a occasionally a bit of rubber, really), but the fact that they'd survived being thrashed around in the drum of a washing machine for an hour or so was pretty impressive, I thought.

Byte: Now with added Madness!

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that my post archive now goes back to 2003, rather than starting in December 2004. This is because I've used a nice bit of functionality in Blogger to integrate all the posts from my old blog.

I'll probably delete the old Mad Iain blog now that I have all the posts consolidated in one place, and will spend a little time over the summer weeding out all the old posts with dead URLs and broken image hotlinks. I haven't imported any of the comments from the old posts, because (as I remember) some of the comments threads did have the tendency to turn into slanging matches because of a bit of cross-pollination of ire from the old State forum, and we don't really need to drag all that up again here. A lot of water has passed under the ruined remains of that particular bridge by now.

I did originally intend to do this blog integration job on my own little piece of internet real estate, but in the end I decided that doing it this way was a whole lot easier, and free, to boot. Never underestimate the attraction of doing something something quickly and cheaply as opposed to spending lots of time and money to essentially get the same result... What? What did you expect? I am Scottish, after all...

In other news, you will have also noted that it's been very quiet around here for the last few weeks. All will be revealed in a month or two - but I'm not quite ready to talk about it yet. (How's that for being enigmatic?)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Byte: The Old Republic

As game trailers go, this is pretty epic.

Yeah, I want this one for review... I will, however, be a bit disappointed if you can't do the fighting combos you see in the trailer in the game. There's nothing worse than seeing all these flashy moves being showcased and then the game utterly failing to deliver on your ability to do them within the game. (Which, I would note, the opening cinematic of World of Warcraft didn't do - broadly speaking, your characters can do everything you saw - shapeshifting, commanding demons, etc) It's right up there in game-crimes with allowing enemies to perform actions that you, as the player cannot. I'm specifically thinking about Unreal 2, here, where you had Skaarj leaping, jumping and rolling about to avoid fire, while you lumbered around like a pregnant elephant. Still, getting back to The Old Republic, the hype looks good - whether it will live up to it is quite another matter. BioWare have long been one of my favourite developers, though, so I'm pretty hopeful.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bark: Go-go-Jonny!

The research scientist, Doctor Jonathan Rae, quoted in this piece on the BBC website is one of the guys I studied with at Leicester. I'm not quite sure how he ended up in Canada, but to see someone you knew personally pretty well as a student doing real, new, hard science is pretty awesome.

I also recognise quite a few of the names of co-authors on his Publication list, too. M. Lester was my tutor, T.K. Yeoman was one of my core Physics lecturers (he was the young, 'cool' one - he used to wear very funky shirts, as I recall) and A.B. Stockton-Chalk (better known as 'Molly') was a girl in my tutor group.

How cool is that? Kind of makes me wish I'd studied a bit harder instead of spending quite so much time on TIE Fighter and Dark Forces. 1997 was clearly a vintage year...

Byte: Toodle-Pip(boy)

I've been playing rather a lot of both Fallout 2 and Fallout 3 recently. And I was going to write a huge long post of analysis about both games, but my review copy of The Sims 3 just dropped through my letterbox, so all bets are off! There goes my productivity for the day...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bark: We like to flip our homes a lot in Scamalot

This whole MPs' expenses scandal has been keeping me broadly amused for the last couple of weeks. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show had a nice take on it - I thought using Terry Jones in drag (from The Meaning of Life, I think) as Douglas Hogg's wife was rather inspired.

I've especially been loving all the insincere hand-wringing and contrition in the press - the only thing they're really sorry about is the fact that they got caught. Though the response from one MP about the size of his expense claims was breathtaking in its level of sheer arrogance, and is probably a truer gauge of the feelings MPs have for their constituents. But I'm amazed at just how naive people have been in thinking that the MPs *didn't* have their hands in the pot. Come on, if you've got an expense account that's larger than the average national wage, and you can claim stuff of relatively modest values without even having to provide a receipt, how is that system (which the MPs got to police for themselves) not going to be widely abused?

So now we've got the likes of David Cameron (or Tony Bland, as I like to call him) shouting out that there's got to be a revamp of Parliament and their expenses system, but curiously enough, he doesn't want to change the voting system over from our current first-past-the-post system (which basically means if you live in a constituency that's predominantly inclined to one party, say Labour or Conservative, when you're a Liberal Democrat, you might as well not vote, because there's no way you can affect the outcome) to a system of proportional representation, where every vote has an equal weight. So at the moment, we have a system where governments are decided on a few dozen marginal seats, where only a few hundred thousand votes might be cast. The rest of the population gets absolutely no say at all, because the constituencies are divided historically down party lines and very rarely change sides. Neither Brown or Cameron want to do away with this system, because it means they wouldn't get so many seats in Parliament, compared to a proportional representation system. Politicians clinging desperately onto their power? Surely not! So much for putting real power back into the hands of the people.

Though I have to say that Cameron's idea of putting ordinary people up for election into Parliament isn't what I'd call a good one. Mainly because the average man on the street is an idiot (that's why we define "average" as average). It's bad enough that we get politicians making decisions about how to run the country - put the same decisions in the hands of your average Sun reader and that really would end in chaos. There's a certain irony in the leader of the party that's most flagrantly abused the current system saying "join us to help us clean up politics", too. It takes some chutzpah to stand on a mountain of shit and tell people that you're on the moral high ground. If the Conservatives had been in government right now there would be riots in the streets. It's only because they're seen as the government-in-waiting that they're getting away with it. That and the fact that Gordon Brown is about as charismatic and likeable as a maimed dung beetle in comparison.

The problem isn't that we have a political elite class - it's that this political elite is an untrustworthy, self-serving bunch of incompetents. Maybe that's a little unfair - some politicians do have integrity and do a good job, but as a breed, in touch with normal day-to-day reality they are not. Try getting MPs to file expenses like someone who works for the NHS, or a school, or any large organisation (where you need VAT receipts for absolutely everything you try to claim) and they might understand why people are pissed off about them being able to spend £400 a month on food without even providing so much as a receipt from Waitrose (somehow I don't think many MPs buy their grub from Aldi or Farm Foods).

A little reform certainly won't do the House of Commons any harm, but do I expect any substantive change out of this furore? No, not really. Mainly because my cynicism could power several small towns for a year, but also because while it's relatively easy to get people to accept more power or privilege, trying to get them to relinquish it voluntarily never really works. The politicians will talk a good game for the next couple of months, and then conveniently forget the whole thing by the time the next general election comes round. I think it would have been amusing if Gordon Brown had called a snap election - unfortunately his balls aren't nearly as big as that pathetic excuse for smile he keeps flashing about on Youtube. I used to think Tony Blair had an insincere, Cheshire Cat smile, but Gordy's really takes the biscuit. A piece of advice, Gordon - if you're a miserable git, don't try to hide it with a smile that make's the Joker's look natural. It's painful to look at and doesn't fool anyone. Be yourself - be a dour, miserable Scottish git. You might get more respect for it.

Byte: Nice Muscle!

That's got to be the strangest game I've ever seen. WANT.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Byte: The parabolic arc of a severed head

Now that my PC is starting to show its age, I've started to buy quite a few cross-plaform games on my Xbox 360, rather than the PC, because at least then I can be sure that they're going to bloody work. At the weekend I paid a ten pound premium (versus the PC version) to pick up Fallout 3 on the 360 and overall, I think it was money well-spent.

Due to other commitments on my time right now, I've only had the chance to play around the opening few areas around Vault 101 and Megaton (no, I've not blown it up yet, though I suspect I will once I've exhausted all the other quests there), and I'm fairly impressed. I never played the original Fallout, but did attempt to play Fallout 2, before I got so frustrated with the turn-based combat system that I uninstalled it and never looked back.

That was probably a bit naughty of me, so I reinstalled it last night and started a new game on it. I found that the best way of getting through the rather tortuous temple of trials at the start was to put some points into melee weapons and then wait until the ants or scorpions got within range and hit them with a targeted thrust from my polearm, using my spare action points to run away bravely so that they'd use their action points to close up to within striking distance for my next turn. That makes combat a whole lot less painful (even if it still takes ages) but my main, overriding impression from playing it last night was just how awful the quest journal was, compared to what you get in modern RPGs nowadays. You get a one-liner for each quest and that's it. No other help than that. It just shows you how much RPGs have come on in the last 10 years. Anyway, I digress...

Combat in Fallout 3 is much better than I found its predecessor. Various people have described it as "Oblivion with guns", and that's a relatively fair assessment. Fallout 3 does play a lot like Oblivion, but the VATS combat system allows you to be much more efficient in the way you use your ammunition, compared to playing it in real time, like another FPS-RTS hybrid, such as Deus Ex or Vampire Bloodlines. Which is just as well, because ammo is relatively scarce and you can't afford to hose down weak enemies with an assault rifle when a .32 calibre pistol could do the same job, albeit just not so quickly. I'm quite proud to say that I have managed to take down a rocket launcher-wielding Super Mutant outside Big Town with just a 10mm pistol (at only level 4), though it's not an experience I intend to repeat in a hurry. I'm certainly dreading the point at which I run out of ammunition, too. But I'm not at this point yet, leaving me free to enjoy the way using VATS allows me to take the heads off raiders and mutant ants and see them fly through the air with a complete disregard for the laws of physics. One of my favourite kills so far was a sneak headshot on a raider with my trusty 10mm pistol in the Super-Duper Mart, which crit'ed him for a one shot kill, sending him catapulting off the top of the supermarket shelf he was walking on, somersaulting and cartwheeling ludicrously through the air in slow motion, like an over-enthusiastic stuntman in a John Woo film. That might get old. Sometime next year. Maybe.

So it's hard to fault the combat right now, and the openness of the game world is very enticing, even if they've gone a little bit too far in the "wasteland" stakes. I know realism in games is the done thing these days, but crikey, is all that wasteland dull or what? Couldn't they have raided the local B&Q and painted up Megaton a little? Where's a post-apocalyptic Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen when you really need one? The sheer sameyness of the town really makes it hard to navigate initially, particularly at night. Surely they could have found a few tins of paint from somewhere to brighten things up a little. There are certainly enough paint guns lying around the place...

That's not my only gripe, either. Bethesda have done the same thing they did with Oblivion and blown their entire voiceover budget on a single character you only see for about ten minutes at the beginning of the game. The consequence of this is that after you've talked to a person twice, they've run out of things to say and all you get from that point on are repeated lines and throwaway comments like "Nice to see you're back". And there's the Oblivion thing where characters all say the same lines, but at least there's a wider variety of voices now. It's also a little disappointing that Bethesda have done away with another one of Fallout's standout features - being able to get married or otherwise basically slut your merry way around the wasteland.

I've always found it odd that developers will be quite happy for you to decapitate and maim your way around the game world, but the merest mention of sex is totally off limits. The closest I've seen so far in Fallout 3 is being able to spend the night with Nova, the redheaded working girl in Megaton, but even that's mostly implied and you don't even get to see so much as her underwear, let alone have her comment on you spending the night together if you rent the bed at Moriarty's. Even something as archaic as Baldur's Gate II had a much more mature treatment of romance (and even casual sex, should you choose to sleep with Phaere in the Underdark). That the subject seems to be totally off verboten in modern games is a tad disappointing.

But overall, I am enjoying the openness of the game world, which is well-realised, if a tad on the dull side (something the post-apocalyptic Auto Assault had trouble with as well). I don't have any followers as yet (not even Dogmeat - hell, I don't even like dogs) and I'm not very far into the main quest, so I'm reserving judgment for a while yet, but I'm enjoying it so far. That I played it well into the early hours of Sunday morning the day I bought it, when I only intended to muck about with the character creation system (which is really nicely done, incidentally - a lot more better than Oblivion's, I'd say) is a good sign. I even picked up the Broken Steel expansion off Xbox Live, since I've heard it fixes a lot of the problems with the way the main quest ends in the unexpanded game. And a raised level cap is always good...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Byte: EVE vs WoW - the revenge!

Last night I filed a review of the latest release of EVE Online - Apocrypha - with my editor at Videogamer. It's written mainly for the benefit of prospective new players, because I didn't really see much point in preaching to the converted. If you're already playing EVE, then the retail release now in shops isn't really meant for you.

Obviously, Apocrypha has been out for some time now, and in order to review the game properly, I've had a much longer stint playing it than my previous effort a couple of years ago. And what I found was very surprising. It's actually grown on me over the last few weeks.

The key to this was that rather than blindly flying around solo wondering what the hell you have to do, I enlisted the help of some EVE veterans I'm friendly with in what's laughably called "real life". They chucked me some money, a couple of spare frigates to get me out of the pathetic starting frigate as quickly as possible and then gave me all sorts of invaluable advice as to what skills I should be training and how to clean up your system overview window to concentrate only on the important stuff (and also how to avoid accidentally shooting one of your Corp-mates).

So rather than piddling around running missions for NPC agents (or worse, mining), instead I was able to head straight out into 0.0 space and see what's really out there. The first thing I learned was that frigates aren't entirely useless. Their speed and maneuverability make them great for harrying larger ships when you're in a fleet, but you still wouldn't want to fly into 0.0 space in one solo. If anything, I've found that EVE is a much more social game than WoW. It's players are certainly much friendlier and helpful in the chat channels than your average WoW player. I've found very little snobbery about the kind of ship you fly. This is because, unlike WoW (where unless you have a full set of top tier Epics, most people look at you like you're somehow inadequate as a human being), each class of vessel has its own particular strength. A small frigate or cruiser set up for electronic warfare or drive jamming, when used in a coordinated way with the rest of your Corp's fleet, is just as useful to have in a fight as the most heavily armed battleship.

This is something I missed entirely in my previous forays into New Eden, mainly because I never really made it out of 1.0 space and didn't see any of the tactics that can be employed in PvP. Even so, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of EVE now, but I suppose that's to be expected. The game is so huge, so complicated, it's only really now after dabbling with it for a month or two that I'm getting any sort of handle on it at all. I've still not really done much with the economic side of EVE, mainly because I've been trying to get to grips with the social aspects of the game. EVE is famous for its political intrigue and inter-corporation warfare, and I have to confess, this is one of the things that appeals to my Machiavellian streak. And it also demonstrates the real difference between EVE and the more traditional structure of an MMORPG like WoW.

The fact that you can influence the in-game economy and the social balance of power is extraordinary after you've played something like Warcraft for four years or more. There, if you nail Onyxia in her lair, she never really dies. She'll respawn in a week and you can kick her scaly butt all over again. But if, for example, you infiltrate a rival corporation alliance and use an administrative loophole to disband it (as recently happened to Band of Brothers), you've just made a profound change to the balance of power within the game. That's almost incomprehensible to someone used to the regimented structure of something like WoW. That the developers would allow players such freedom to do a thing that literally destroys years and years of effort on the part of the alliance involved, just beggars belief when you see the way Blizzard stamp at the merest hint of people playing the game in a way they don't want you to play it.

I still think I probably need to play EVE for at least another six months before I could really pass a proper judgment on it, but having experienced both games properly now (and I freely admit that I was an idiot for trying to play EVE like any other MMORPG in my previous efforts), I think I can do a more reasonable 'versus' comparison now.

Both games have a lot going for them. In their own way, I like both immensely, and it's not really fair to draw a direct comparison, because of the way that the games have been designed and structured.

WoW is a far more regimented experience. You have your levels and your level grind and the objective of the game is to work your way up to the level cap, enjoying (or not) the story along the way, before devoting yourself to either doing organised PvP or high-end raiding at the level cap, or rolling and levelling a new character. You also have to live with the fact that you're never going to be able to change the lore of the game. That's imposed upon you and what you do will never truly make the blindest bit of difference to the game world. That's just the rules of the game.

EVE on the other hand doesn't attempt to restrict you in any way. The game world is vast, complicated and dynamic. It's as much about making money and gaining power as it is about flying around star systems blowing shit up. EVE is what you want it to be. There's no grind, just time invested in skills research. I do still have massive reservations about the learning curve, however. While you can get started in WoW relatively easily, EVE remains utterly overwhelming and bewildering to begin with, and despite CCP Games's best efforts to tone down the learning curve with some nicely put together tutorials, I can see it still putting off a lot of players in those first couple of weeks. The key is to get in with a corporation quickly and let them show you the ropes, rather than stumble around in the dark wondering where the light switch is.

If I had to recommend one game out of the two for someone to pick, assuming that they've never played either before and would be starting a new character from scratch, it's a tricky decision. WoW is clearly a lot easier to pick up to begin with, but if you want to get involved with a guild and what they're doing from night to night, it's a long journey to get to the level cap so that you can participate in the top-end raids (assuming everyone doesn't sniff condescendingly at you because your gear isn't good enough to come along). I'm not sure what the average level 1-80 time is now in WoW, but it's got to be something of the order of 200-300 hours or maybe more - especially if you're a brand new player. That's a lot of time to invest in a game before you can really get stuck in and involved with the end-game. Which, frankly, I've never found all that interesting, myself. I'd much rather explore the game world and level characters. WoW was always more about the journey than the destination, for me.

I suppose this is why, now that it's finally clicked with me, I think EVE is arguably the more rewarding game, both in the short-to-medium term and in the long term. Those couple of hundred hours you would spend in WoW just getting to the level cap could (in EVE) instead be spent getting directly into the action with a corporation. Whether you wanted to go down the mining, trading or PvP route, EVE's structure, as unwelcoming as it might be at the initial outset, doesn't stop you from getting involved in a meaningful way, right from the start (because the whole game is the 'end-game').

So I've definitely changed my mind about EVE over the last few weeks. This may surprise a few people, given what I've said about it before, but hey, wisdom comes with age, I suppose...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bark: Bacon Monday

I was so bad yesterday. Three meals, three servings of bacon. I was working in the Portsmouth office yesterday, meaning that I had access to their fine canteen, filled with the usual breakfast delights. I went for my usual Breakfast Muffin of Death (bacon, egg and a hash brown, slathered with lashings of brown sauce), washed down with a cold bottle of Diet Coke. Just the way to start a long, hard Monday in the office.

At lunchtime I had a brie and bacon baguette with yet more Diet Coke, which sustained me until I got home, whereupon I decided to complete the set with some linguine with a tomato, bacon and chilli sauce, accompanied by some red wine (because at this point, the only thing I was missing in my food group list was alcohol).

Not my healthiest day ever, but definitely one of the tastiest...

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Byte: Well that went well

Of all the possible things that could have fouled up my attempt to repair my laptop, I didn't foresee this one.

Thanks so some rather robust German over-engineering, it seems like they used case screws made out of titanium and got them tightened by The Hulk, because they ruined my mini-screwdriver (literally sheared off the edges of the turning planes) by the time I attempted to remove the third screw. Out of nearly THIRTY. At that rate I'd be spending a fortune on new screwdrivers simply to open the little bastard up.

So I didn't even manage to take the case off, let alone have a go at repairing the power socket with the soldering iron I was so looking forward to using. Sigh. I guess I'll just have to find a decent independent PC shop that repairs laptops.

Byte: What could POSSIBLY happen?

Some companies have a very odd business plan...

I was in PC World yesterday to pick up a USB Flash stick for my beloved, when I thought I'd take the opportunity to pay a visit to their "Tech Guys" to see how much they'd rob me to repair my laptop, which has been broken for a couple of weeks. I explained the problem thus: my laptop has stopped charging, because I believe the power socket has somehow managed to work itself loose from the motherboard, as it was giving me an intermittent contact when I plugged the power pack in for a while, and then it decided to give up the ghost and not want to charge anymore. I'm certain that there's nothing wrong with either the battery or the power pack, since the power pack has a little light at the PC plug end, which faithfully illuminates when I plug it into the wall and the battery happily discharged its remaining power, and if it works discharging, I can think of any reason why it wouldn't want to charge. So the culprit has to be the connection between the motherboard and the power socket in the laptop itself, which is failing to form a circuit.

The "Tech Guy" listened to all this sagely, and then said, fatefully, "We don't do any laptop maintenance on site, we send it away, and there's a fixed price for laptop repairs." That price being somewhere over £230. Who the hell would pay that? For that price you could buy a perfectly good netbook. So I thought, screw that for a game of soldiers, especially since the part that's broken must cost all of a couple of quid at most. So, I thought it would be much more cost effective to go out and buy a soldering iron, some high quality electric solder and a decent mini-screwdriver to take the case apart and fix the damn thing myself, for less than £40.

Which is what I'm going to try to do tonight. I mean, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? At worst I'll screw the motherboard, but since the lappy's absolutely unusable anyway, I don't have much to lose at this point other than pride and faith in my own ability to fiddle safely with electronics. It's been approximately 17 years since I last used a soldering iron, but electronics was always one of my favourite bits in Design & Technology. Fingers crossed I'll have a working laptop come the end of the evening. And if I don't, well, it's not like that's too different from what I started the evening with...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Byte: Bizarre Gaming Injuries

My right side has been killing me all day, because I was up late last night playing KotOR on my Xbox 360, and I was lying on the floor, with my elbow tucked up underneath my ribs, grasping a gamepad. I think I've done myself a bit of a mischief, because it feels like I've either badly bruised or cracked a rib. It's all because I stayed up a little longer than I intended to finish off Taris and take my first couple of Jedi levels, so I wasn't quite as attentive as usual in the way I was sitting. I'm going to have to get myself a good beanbag, or one of those gaming rocking chairs...

What're your most bizarre video game related injuries, readers?

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Finally, I can officially call myself a Winner. I'm going to give it another week (even though I finished the first draft nearly two weeks ago) and then have a go at the second draft. But right now I think I can feel justly proud of myself, and I have the png file to show for my efforts.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bark: Hymn To The Immortal Wind

I've been spending much more money than usual on CDs lately, and my latest acquisition dropped through my letterbox from Play this morning.

My buddy Matija (a fellow former WoW player) tipped me off about these chaps a week or two back, and obviously, since my music tastes are about a decade behind most normal people, I'd never heard of them. Mono are a Japanese post-rock band, who've apparently been fairly huge for around the last ten years. I picked up Hymn To The Immortal Wind after listening to a couple of its tracks on their Myspace site, and the album's really nice - kind of a cross between Mogwai and Michael Nyman. It's a very strong album: easy to listen to, yet lots of variation in mood, intensity and an imaginative use of instruments, blending the use of classical concert instruments with those of a modern rock band. Some tracks (especially Ashes In The Snow, The Battle To Heaven and Follow The Map) are hauntingly beautiful. It'll be keeping me happy while I code macros for the rest of the week, I'm sure.

At the weekend I also picked up some Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, simply because it's about bloody time I did, frankly. Yeah, that's how behind I am. Give me another decade and I might finally get around to buying some Franz Ferdinand...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Byte: What the?

This is probably the last time I'll post about World of Warcraft for the foreseeable future, since my subscription expired while I still had 40% of the Uldar patch to download.

My old State-chum Mark flagged this story up to me this morning, which left me going MUH?

World of Warcraft and Peggle are perfectly wonderful games. Two of my favourites, in fact, but they don't belong together. This could be the first sign that Blizzard are really beginning to lose the plot with WoW.

If I want to play Peggle, I WILL PLAY PEGGLE. I won't load up World of Warcraft and stand around in Orgrimmar or Ironforge challenging people to Peggle duels. It seems utterly futile to me.

It's a little bit like all those 3G mobile phone companies telling you "you can watch TV on your mobile!" I already have a TV for that, thanks. It's built specifically for that purpose and it does a much better job of it than a 2 inch screen on a mobile phone, too.

It's like Blizzard have sat down and thought, "how can we make WoW even more appealing to bored housewives and layabout students? I know - PEGGLE!" And, of course, Pop Cap aren't going to turn down the chance of 10 million people being able to play their game (since some of them will want to go off and buy the standalone version), but it's a bit meta, isn't it? Games within games, real world game meets fantasy world... though I can't help but think that Puzzle Quest would have been a more appropriate choice.

But this story gets me worried about games. When you get this kind of thing happening in a game, my internal alarm bells start to clang and it's a sure sign you're on the express train to Shitsville. Just as well my sub has finished, really.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bark: A wholly inadequate response


J.G. Ballard has died.


Ballard has been one of my favourite authors over the last few years and one of my greatest influences as a nascent writer of fiction. Super-Cannes ranks up there as one of my very favourite books, and Crash is probably the most disturbing book I've ever read, so Ballard's work will always have an influence on the way I view our increasingly techno-obsessed society. He was one of the first people to see and make the connection that as our level of technological advancement as a civilisation increased, our standards as human beings seem to regress.

"Genius" and "visionary" are two very much over-used labels these days, but I believe that they can be applied to Jim Ballard in the most literal sense.

As a fantastic author, thinker and keen observer of the human condition, Ballard is going to be missed - not least by me.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bark: And that's a wrap, people!

I stayed up into the wee hours this morning adding the final few pages to my Script Frenzy. I'll probably regret it this afternoon when the lack of sleep catches up with me, but right now it feels worth it.

One hundred and four pages in just seventeen days. To quote Han Solo, sometimes I amaze even myself...

I mean, daaaaamn. I just wrote a film script (admittedly just a rough first draft) in less than three weeks. It actually ended up a little shorter than I was expecting it to be about a week ago, as I really picked the pace up in the final act on the Star Forge. I'm pleased with my ending as well, since it's less clichéd than the game's "Prodigal Knight" wrap-up and medal ceremony, and the very last scene especially ought to give people a big sentimental uplift - which is necessary because a lot of the film is quite dark.

Now I'm going to convert it to PDF and send it out to a few people to get some feedback (from people who've played the game to see how well they think it sticks to the spirit of the game, but also to a few people who never have and never will play the game, to see how it functional purely as a story and a film). Then I give it a couple of weeks to put some clinical distance between myself and the script as it is now, so that I can do a re-write with a much more objective eye and tighten everything up. I already know that the script has a few weaknesses, particular in the way in the foreshadowing is set up for the big reveal about Revan. I skipped a fair bit of that because I was worried about the overall length. But since the final act turned out shorter than I expected, I can put a lot of that exposition back into the first two acts.

But that's for another day. Today is for feeling rather pleased with myself. I've written a film script, FFS. I might never be able to do anything with it (in terms of making an actual film), BUT I'VE WRITTEN A GODDAMN FILM SCRIPT. Lots of people like to casually mention in conversation that they're writers, only to get immediately embarrassed when people ask what they've written and they have to admit that they've never actually finished anything, not even a short story.

Well, today I actually finished something for once, and it feels great to know that I can do it. Today I finally feel that I've earned the right to call myself a genuine writer. Somehow the games journalism stuff (not to mention the drivel I post here) never really seemed to count. But today I don't feel like a casual keyboard basher anymore. I actually took on a project and gave it a beginning, middle and an end. And hurrah for that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bark: They don't call it a frenzy for nothing

It's been a most productive weekend. I'm eighty-one pages into my film script adaptation of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That's way, WAY ahead of schedule. I reckon I should be done by this weekend.

In terms of actual text, 81 pages isn't actually a huge amount, only about 18,000 words, but that still surpasses what I managed for last year's NaNoWriMo by quite a significant margin.

It's been hugely fun to write, and I'm just about to embark on the finale, which has been taking form in my head over the last few days. It's going to have a similar form to that of the game, but will differ in quite a few ways in order to make it a little bit more dramatic. I'm pretty happy with the way things have turned out so far, though I did decide in the end to drop HK-47 entirely. His taunts of pathetic meatbags will be missed, but hopefully not too much. Juhani also doesn't make the cut, either - but the galaxy's much better without a mopey cat-woman cluttering up the place.

With fewer characters to fit in, I've been able to flesh out a couple of the supporting players more. Carth is much more likeable - more of a cross between Atton Rand and Malcolm Reynolds, but still with a touch of Carth's whiny angst around the edges. Jolee's playing the Wise Old Man, or Obi-Wan role, but there are parts where he's a little bit too much of a Captain Obvious. I'll probably have to go back and rewrite some of that at some point. Canderous is also a bit on the Captain Obvious side, but I do have a nice twist for him in the climax.

Before I started I was a little concerned as to how I would get on writing the dialogue - given that with screenwriting you have to convey so much more with what is said, rather than what is described - but I have to say, I've not found it nearly as difficult as I thought I would. I've hardly reused anything from the original game. There are a few rare instances, but nearly all of the dialogue is formed from the spirit of what appears in the game, rather than the actual words themselves.

I will be sending out the script to a few select people for honest, no-bullshit assessments. I can't really be a judge of the standard of my own writing (I'm biased, I think everything I do is awesome), so it will be nice to have some feedback and maybe a little bit of ego-puncturing. Having said that, though - I don't think there's a huge amount of flab that could be cut. Certainly, it's been written in a hurry and that will show a lot, but I've tried to keep things tight and follow the screenwriter's mantra: come into a scene late and get out early.

It's been a terrifically enjoyable exercise, though. And I don't say that about writing stuff very often. I could get used to this...

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bark: The Week of Eating Dangerously

Friends and regular readers will know that I'm a pretty keen cook. There are relatively few things I enjoy more than rummaging around a half-empty cupboard and then miraculously transforming its contents into something nutritious and delicious. However, when my good lady is away (like she is at the moment, visiting her parents), I really can't be bothered cooking for one.

So this week I've been living off all sorts of stuff I normally wouldn't eat, like pies with hash browns, chinese takeaways and (for breakfasts that I'd normally skip entirely) toasted crumpets with smooth peanut butter. And I've not exactly been drinking healthily either, since I've had enough beer over the last five days to bathe a blue whale.

Just as well it's a four day weekend coming up, because I'm going to need to spend at least half that in the gym...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Byte: Oh, the humanity!

The comments thread on this RPS piece almost had me wetting myself. Dr_Demento's is my favourite. Well, other than Tei's bizarre-o-comment, that is... Some people just don't understand the whole concept of satire. (though most of the people in the thread do, thankfully)

Maybe I'm veering into meta-commentary here, but the Onion's piece isn't just a satire on the content of videogames, but also the one-dimensional reporting of it in the news media. Anyone who was paying attention in the last 15 years would have known that The Onion is one of the most well-known news media parody sites out there. I really can't fathom how some people have been taking it seriously. Were they not keeping an eye on the headline ticker? No wonder the Daily Mail constantly get up the collective nose of gamers. They're such an overly defensive, poe-faced bunch at times.

Bark: First-generation Gargoyle

If any of you out there have read Snow Crash, then you're going to find this pretty interesting.


I'm pleasantly surprising myself with Script Frenzy. We're eight days in, and I've already clocked up a fairly staggering 44 pages. I think I'm actually going to overrun the 100 page target by a good 10 pages or so, but I've got everything planned out in my head as to how the story is going to work.

Due to time constraints, I've made quite a few significant changes to characters and events in the game, which would no doubt upset quite a few fanboys if this film ever made the light of day. But since annoying fanboys is one of my biggest aims in life right now, that's okay.


One of the biggest changes from the game is that I've aged Mission from a teenager into a woman in her early twenties, basically because I thought having a 14 year old girl zooming about space with a group of 30-plus men was a bit creepy. The more dramatic reason making her older was so that I could set up a classic love triangle between Mission, the protagonist and Bastila. I've also killed off Zaalbar before they even leave Taris, mainly for dramatic purposes ('surely he's not going kill the cute fuzzy-wuzzy?' - yes I am!), but also because (despite looking like one, as my good lady always reminds me whenever she wants me to have a shave) I don't like wookiees that much - and there's not really much you can do with one in terms of characterisation. And given that there simply isn't time in the film to deal with Zaalbar's exile sub-plot from the game, he's otherwise pretty much surplus to requirements.

Carth is also a good deal less angsty in my version of the story, just to make him more likeable, though Bastila wouldn't be Bastila if she wasn't taking haughtiness to noble levels. I haven't had to do too much with Canderous, though he doesn't stick around for long after they get to Dantooine. Jolee makes his appearance as he does in the game - on Kashyyyk - and sticks around from that point. I've not quite gotten there yet, but Jolee's a fun character in the game. He should be nice to write scenes for.

I've cut Juhani and T3-M4 from the story entirely, since like Zaalbar, they're just extra mouths to feed in terms of screen time. They're not strictly needed to drive the plot onward, so I might give them background cameos at some point, but that's about it.

One character I'm not quite decided on yet is HK-47. We're skipping Tatooine entirely, since there's no real reason to have to visit more than one star map in the film. At the risk of a whole internet's worth of Nerd Rage being directed at my inbox, I think I'm going to cut him. I'm loath to do so, given that he has all the best lines in the game, but I'm not sure there's enough slack in the screen time available to be able to do him any sort of justice at all. I'm kind of tempted to conflate his character with that of Calo Nord, as a secondary antagonist, since it makes more sense to have a psycho-killer robot working for the bad guys rather than the heroes, but again, I'm undecided at this point. I'll probably save that decision for a re-write.


I'm really amazed at just how well things are going so far. I've even got my ending sorted out, and it's much more bitter-sweet than I originally thought it was going to be. I'm not going to reveal too much now, but let's just say not everyone gets a happy ending...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Byte: ZOMG! W00T!

I was flicking through my subs copy of PC Gamer (Issue 200), when I got to the letters section. I'm scan-reading through when I see a screenshot on page 52 that looks rather familiar, underneath a letter by one of the PCG guildies playing on Steamwheedle Cartel.

I may have just scared the neighbours with some rather delighted screaming. Cheers to Tim, Ross, or whoever it was from PCG who picked it up off the Screenshots thread on the PCG WoW guild forum. You just made my day.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Bark: Röyksopp Forever

Röyksopp's new album turned up from Play this week, in a particularly well-timed move to coincide with the start of Script Frenzy.

If I had to describe it in a word: jaunty. If I had to describe it a horrible, mangled, compound, triple-hyphenated word: HAPPY-HAPPY-JAUNTY-JAUNTY!

I don't know nearly enough about music (unlike some games journalists) to delve into detailed criticism of the album or its individual tracks, but it's had me bounding happily in my chair all week, so it can't be half bad.

Speaking of Script Frenzy, I'm pretty shocked by my progress so far, given that I've written over twenty pages in the last four days. I suspect because it's mainly because I know the game forwards, backwards and sideways, after so many playthroughs, but I think the time I spent 'pre-writing' last week setting out my page and scene plans is really paying off. If I keep going at this rate, I'll be finished well ahead of schedule. As of Sunday, I'll have nine evenings of uninterrupted writing time, which is fantastic. I might even be able to finish up before Fleur gets back from France. I really wasn't expecting it to be quite this easy. But let's not count our poulets just yet... Twenty pages much be a good start, but there's still a long way to go.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Byte: A case of bad timing

The announcement of OnLive's cloud computing service, which hosts videogames on a 'cloud' server farm and then streams the video output down your broadband line for you to play on your PC or via a low-cost TV-console, got a predictably short thrift when people sat down to analyse it last week.

My own thoughts (see the comments thread) on the subject were along the lines of "Remember the Infinium Phantom?" That little exercise didn't exactly end well. Years of development and millions of dollars burned in R&D costs and all they had to show for it was a $120 lapboard. Which I don't think anyone bought.

As you might expect, the response from OnLive has been pretty robust. Shame they chose to make their rebuttal statement on April Fool's Day, though. Probably could have timed that one better...

Bark: Fade in

I stayed up extra late last night for a post-midnight writing session to make a flying start on my Script Frenzy, and wrote five pages of script before I went to bed.

I'm pretty sure what I wrote was total rubbish, but this time (unlike with NaNoWriMo and just about everything else I write) I managed to resist the temptation to go back and rewrite stuff as I went. That's what May is for. So I've almost done my first two day's worth of script within the first couple of hours of the Frenzy. Hopefully I can keep that momentum up and hammer away at the script in a major way while my good lady is off visiting her parents in France next week.

It really helps that I have such a clear idea of how the scenes would work in the film (who says replaying KOTOR a dozen times or more was a total waste of time, huh?), so the words are really flowing at the moment. It also helps that I'm in the kind of mood where I just need to sit down an WRITE, too. I don't know quite yet, but I might actually prefer screenwriting to writing standard narrative prose. I've always had a very visual memory and way of thinking (I used to memorise Physics equations before exams simply by staring at them condensed onto a single side of A4 paper for half an hour before walking into the exam, letting me remember equations simply by visualising the piece of paper - I never would have passed my degree if I hadn't been able to do that), so I can see myself doing a lot more of this in the future.

I'm not sure what I'll do with the script when I've finished the first draft, given that I could never afford to buy the rights to make a film with it, but I suspect I'll selectively distribute it to a few of my writer-y friends, get some feedback on it and do at least one rewrite on it. Then if that's any good, I'll try and do an original script. Who knows? This could be a new career. Hey, you can dream, right?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bark: Foodstuff of legend

I haven't done this here in a very long while, but I'm going to give you one of my favourite recipes that I make on pretty much a weekly basis. I swear, one of these days I will write a cookbook. Not that I think I'm the next Jamie Oliver or anything - I realise that I'm a man of relatively modest talent, but while I might not be truly exceptional at any one thing (apart from being a drunken, self-aggrandising, narcissistic prick, perhaps), I would contend that I'm better than the average bear at a great many things, and if the feedback I get from Fleur's colleagues at work are anything to go by (given the way I'm told they react to the lunchboxes I make for her), cooking is one of them. Indeed, my tomato sauces are rapidly becoming the stuff of legends.

But enough with the cheerfully shameless self-promotion. Here's the recipe.

(Very generously serves 2-3)

150g of good quality pasta (I prefer linguine or fusilli lunghi bucati for the shape)
400g tin of cherry tomatoes (Sainsbury's do some terrific ones in their 'Taste the Difference' - or as I like to call it, 'Pay Through the Nose' - Range... but with tinned tomatoes, spending a few extra pennies really does give you much more in terms of flavour)
3-4 cloves of garlic - crushed, grated or very thinly sliced
2 small red onions - cut in half and thinly sliced
6-8 large button mushrooms (or if you really want to be fancy, use a pack of oyster mushrooms - just be aware that these will take longer to fry to really give you a good taste in the sauce), sliced into 0.5-0.75cm chunks
1 large courgette - cut in half length-ways, and then sliced at a thickness of around 0.5cm
1 large carrot - cut into 'julienne' batons, about 3cm long
1 ramiro red pepper - cut into 1cm wide strips (these are the pointed peppers, rather than the capsicum, bell-shaped ones. slightly more expensive, but they're a lot sweeter)
1 pack of Swedish pork & beef meatballs - typically 400g or so (if you prefer, you could make these yourself. I have my own 'secret' recipe that I'm simply not going to give out for free on a blog - I'm saving it for my cookbook!)
Salt & Pepper - to taste
1 pack of fresh Basil - 25-40g will be plenty
Dried oregano
Dried Italian Herb Mix
1 25cl glass of good quality red wine (something really gutsy, like a Californian Shiraz or a South African Merlot)
Red Chilli flakes (as many as you dare!)
Tomato puree (to thicken the sauce)
2 Beef stock cubes (for extra meaty punch)
Gran Padano or Parmesan cheese - grated, to serve (I like Gran Padano, as it's slightly less salty and a little cheaper than Parmesan)

How to do it:

Fry the onions in some olive oil over a medium heat for several minutes until they start to turn translucent. Add the garlic and stir gently until the garlic starts to fry (do not let it burn!). Add the mushrooms to the pan with a little extra oil and season with a little salt and pepper. (Make sure you season as you go - this will prevent your dish from turning out to be horribly bland after you've spent an hour slaving over the stove).
Once the mushrooms start to colour, add a little wine (about half the glass) to deglaze the pan and then add the courgette. Let the courgette fry for a minute or two and then add the meatballs and then crumble the stock cubes over the entire pan evenly. Stir in the remaining half of the glass wine to prevent the stock cube residue from burning to the bottom of the pan. Once the stock cubes have infused into the wine liquour, add the tinned tomatoes (including the juice) and season with more salt, pepper, the chilli flakes and a sprinkling of the dried oregano and Italian herb mix. Reduce the heat to low, add the carrot and the red pepper, cover and leave to cook for at least twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. The longer you leave the sauce to cook, the better the end result will be - but twenty to thirty minutes will be sufficient for most people. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Add more wine if the sauce is becoming a little too dry.

Now put on the pasta and cook according to the instructions. You can add a little olive oil and salt into the water, if desired. When the pasta requires just five more minutes, shred the fresh basil leaves and add them to the sauce, stirring thoroughly. Taste the sauce again and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Be careful with the salt level, as the Gran Padano or Parmesan contains quite a lot of salt and will alter the balance of taste in the sauce quite significantly when the dish is served. But don't be afraid of adding extra pepper - a bit of extra bite will help balance the richness given to the sauce by the wine. If the sauce requires thickening (or a bit of sweetening, should you have gone a little overboard with the chilli) use the tomato puree to give the sauce a nice thick consistency and boost the flavour of the tomatoes.

Once the pasta has finished cooking, drain and serve immediately. Finish the plate with a grating of cheese, to the personal preference of the diner. (The more the better, as far as I'm concerned, but who am I to dictate?)

Enjoy with some good company (you'll have to find your own source of that, I'm afraid) and a large glass of decent red wine (ideally the same as you used in the cooking).