Thursday, February 26, 2009

Byte: For the Chapter!

With World of Lagcraft still being a total disaster zone in terms of playability, I have at least been able to devote a huge amount of time to Dawn of War II. I completed the main campaign last night (on Normal/Sergeant difficulty), which is in itself a great sign of quality. I only ever make the effort to complete games I really get a kick out of, and even then, that's not necessarily a guarantee I will complete a game (I've still not finished the main campaigns for TIE Fighter and GTA: Vice City, and they're both in my Top 10 games ever), so Dawn of War II is one of a proud few games in my collection that can be considered pwnz0red.

HUGE FECKING SPOILERS, AHOY!

Overall, I really liked it. In fact, I'd got beyond that in saying that it's truly excellent and dangerously compulsive. The main campaign has a pretty decent story and though there might not be many surprises if you're really up on your Warhammer 40k lore (which I'm not, really), it's still executed nicely. The game is also constructed quite well in terms of varying the enemies you fight, since it's not Orks, then Eldar, then Tyranids, or at least not exclusively. You still get to go back and fight the Greenskins and the Space Elves every now and again once the 'nids turn up, which is a big improvement on the original Dawn of War campaign.

There's been a lot written about the game being repetitive, but for me it never really became a huge issue until I got about 75% through the main missions, and done a few optional missions on the side, by which point you've visited every map at least twice. Mechanically, I don't care what other people say, any RTS or RPG is fundamentally repetitive - indeed, I think that's part of the attraction. A few more maps would have been nice, but even so, more maps wouldn't change the base experience of the game (the joy in micromanaging the combat and seeing your troops kick Xeno-butt), and the original game only had eleven maps in the campaign, so there is more on offer here, especially since there's a greater variety of terrain on offer.

I played a bit of the original and Dark Crusade to get a fresh comparison, and I have to say, I think that Dawn of War II is a definite improvement - and I don't just mean graphically. I really like the specialisation of having smaller squads and employing them in the right way, rather than just marauding around in huge groups. You also get a bit of replay value in having to choose three squads from a possible five - on my first play-through I neglected Cyrus a lot once Thaddeus turned up, and replaced Tarkus with the Dreadnought-ized Captain Thule when I got far enough into the campaign to "save" him. I will be definitely replaying this a lot, and experimenting more with squad composition. I'm not sure about upping the difficulty, though. I've flirted with the Captain difficulty level, and it seems a bit *too* micromanagement heavy on the combat. I can't imagine what the optional mission where you have to take down the Avatar of Khaine must be like on Captain or Primarch difficulty. He has nearly 300,000 hit points on Sergeant (regenerating!) and it took me 20 minutes to whittle him down two-thirds before I got bored and quit to do something more interesting. That Terminator armour might be enticing as a mission completion reward, but it's not worth that long a slog, re-ordering each squad every ten seconds to move them around to stop them from getting wasted by Adds (that's 'additional enemies called in by the boss' in non-gamerspeak) or the large, flamey fucker's area of effect attacks. (Lesson One: Never, EVER put people in buildings during boss fights) Some people might like that kind of thing, but I've got better things to do. Like watch the 'splodes...

But yeah, it's really fucking good, and I'm glad I decided to splurge the money on it. So good that it's been eating up playing time that I should have been using to review Race Pro on 360 (More on that at a later date). If you're reading all this and still aren't sure how good I think it is and need a number, then okay, have a 9/10 from me, for what it's worth. Happy now?

In other news, I'm currently downloading review code for Empire: Total War from Steam. Get this: Disk usage - 15091MB. That's got to set some kind of record, surely. On my 2Mbps pipe, I've downloaded 15% in the last three hours. OUCH. This... may take some time!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Byte: Strike From The Sky, Brothers!

I've been playing a fairly huge amount of Dawn of War II over the weekend, and I think it's really rather good.

The original Dawn of War was pretty much my only exception to my "RTS games all suck" rule (though there are a few other notable exceptions, such as Haegemonia: Legions of Iron and Star Wars: Supremacy), so I was looking forward to this. The first surprise when playing the main campaign of Dawn of War II was that they've done away with base building altogether. You start each mission from a drop pod and the missions themselves are much shorter and more focussed than in the original game. You also only have a handful of squads to play with, rather than a squad cap, meaning that rather than having eighty-odd Space Marines and assorted armoured units rampaging around the map in a couple of groups sweeping aside all the opposition in their way, instead you've only got around a dozen people in four squads, and the squads themselves are much more specialised, making battle management much more like an RPG than an RTS, as you have to use each squad in a way that plays to their strengths, rather than just standing toe-to-toe and letting the people with the biggest boots win the shin-kicking contest.

The move to a much more tactical combat model (with it's traits, accessories and abilities for the characters leading your squads) makes the game a lot more involving than the original, and employing your people properly is all the more important, because unlike the original game, you can't reinforce at will by clicking a button. You have to be near a control point or building you own in order to replace slain personnel, which encourages you to take a greater level of care in engagements, because careless losses really are punished.

There's also a greater emphasis on completing levels quickly, as you're graded not just on how many enemies that you kill, but also on how fast you achieve your main objective for the mission; so rather than having missions lasting an hour or more, you can complete most missions in under 20 minutes. I don't think is such a bad thing, as it means you can progress through the campaign relatively swiftly, and there are a greater number of missions to play than in the original game, so despite the shorter level length, there's enough going on as you flit from planet to planet throughout the sector that you're not going to feel too short-changed.

From this point on, Here Be Spoilers, so consider yourself duly warned...

The game starts innocently enough with you slaughtering Orks on the Blood Raven's homeworld as you put together your team over the first few missions. First it's just you (the Force Commander, who occupies one of the four squads by himself, due to his resilience and ability to kick alien butt) and Tarkus, a former Terminator who now leads a standard (bolter-equipped) Space Marine squad. Over the next few missions you get to meet Cyrus (a Space Marine Scout), Avitus (a Devastator Marine) and Thaddeus (an Assault Marine) and their respective squads, all of whom join your merry band of killers, though you have to pick and chose which of these squads you leave behind, as you have four to pick from, but can only take three along. (I'm assuming at some point you get the option of bringing along a Dreadnought, too - but I'm not quite that far in yet)

I've mainly been playing with Tarkus, Avitus and Thaddeus, leaving Cyrus behind, as Cyrus is very weak in melee, so not really suiting to fighting at close-quarters, and his ranged damage isn't nearly so good as that you get from Tarkus or Avitus. The infiltration ability is pretty handy in places, but I don't think he's quite as useful as the other squads. Tarkus is good to take along mainly because he has a shitload of accessory slots, which allow you to use support or attack items in combat (such as health packs, melta-packs or portable turrets) and his ranged damage is decent enough, especially if you pick up improved bolters or plasma rifles in the random loot drops. Avitus and his Devastator squad are pretty much compulsory in my eyes, since the sheer firepower you get out of those heavy bolters is amazing. If you set them up in cover (or better yet, a building) and get the Force Commander to pull enemies towards their position, it's like a shooting gallery - and the sound you get from those heavy bolters is terrifically satisfying. But I think my favourite squad is Thaddeus's, as getting him and his Assault Marines to perform hit-and-run attacks using their jump-packs is just awesome. Each squad has its own niche, and if you co-ordinate them correctly, you can really clean up. Orks especially don't stand much of a chance if you use Thaddeus and the Force Commander to draw them into ambushes.

The early levels aren't so challenging, but once they introduce the Eldar (who have basically plotted to send the Orks into the sector to help slow down the Tyranid advance, only for the Space Marines to foul things up by duly slaughtering all the Orks), things start to get much tougher, and you really have to pay attention to the deployment of your squads and not let one unit get isolated, or they'll get slaughtered. Vehicles, such as Fire Prism Tanks, are a hell of a lot tougher than they were in the original Dawn of War - or maybe it just seems that way, since you've only got a handful of people to command now. Each mission usually ends with a bit of a boss fight - ranging from the fairly easy to the rat-bastard hard - the Eldar Wraithlord encounter in particular is a really nasty fight, as you have to be really careful with your squads and not let the bastard get too close for insta-kills in melee. Fortunately, to offset the low number of troops you have at your disposal, Relic have implemented gear upgrades, which take the form of random drops of weapons and armour, in a World of Warcraft-esque white/green/blue item ranking system of rarity and power. (If they have purples - i.e. epics - as well, I've not found any yet) Your squads also accumulate experience during combat and can gain levels (to a maximum level of 20) and assign skill points (2 per level) into ability trees (Health, Energy, Ranged Combat and Melee Combat) to unlock extra traits, some of which give talents and abilities to be used in combat, or allow characters to use special weapons, like Power Fists and Flamers.

By the time the Tyranids turn up, you should be around halfway up the level tree and will have upgraded the gear on all of your squads to stuff substantially better than what you start with, and it's really necessary, because they're pretty fearsome. The first time you fight a Carniflex is pretty bruising experience, and while the Eldar are pretty annoying in great numbers, the Tyranids are even more so, since you get swarms of the fuckers spitting gobs of acid at you from beyond Devastator range. Once you get your tactics sorted, though, you can deal with them without too many problems, though I do expect things to ramp up a bit more when the Tyranid infestation levels start to peak later in the campaign.

Overall, it's great fun and I've found the single player more direct and involving that its predecessor, though it does perhaps lose a little on spectacle, because you've got fewer units to play with. But I'm pleasantly surprised that Relic had the balls to not simply make Dawn of War with shinier graphics and Tyranids. Anything that will upset genre purists and fanboys gets my vote. I reckon I'm only about halfway through the campaign (7 hours played so far, according to my Steam page), so I've still got a fair way to go with this, but from what I've played so far, I think it's well worth the £23 Play are asking for it.

My advice? Go buy.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bark: That was the week that was

What a week. It started badly and kind of tailed off from there, really.

I've worked something over 60 hours this week, leaving me little time for those general life niceties, such as sleep, cooking, relaxation and playing games. I also spent roughly half the week in crippling physical pain, as after spending nearly two hours driving home from the office in Portsmouth in absolutely horrible weather (heavy rain, fog and thick spray from the roads) I had to spend another two hours trying to stop my car alarm playing silly buggers, because I'd gone over a pothole on the A3 at 70-odd miles an hour (the pothole was new, caused by the wintry weather over the last couple of weeks, and the terrible driving conditions meant that by the time I saw it, I didn't have the time to dodge around it), the shock of which dislodged a switch at the front of the car, making the alarm system think that the bonnet was open when it was, in fact, tightly closed. It took four trips out into the pouring, cold rain to re-seat the bonnet so that the alarm didn't wail away into the dark, stormy night, pissing off the neighbours. The result of these moist excursions was that I had little pixies sticking electrified needles into the back of my neck every thirty seconds for the rest of the week (or that's what it felt like, at least). Not ideal when you have a job that requires you to be able to maintain a high level of concentration for many hours at a time.

So after the 13 hour working day on Monday, I had another one the following day at home; and this wasn't "working" from home with a 60 minute WoW session for lunch, this was M&S working from home: working straight through from 8.30am to nearly 10pm, working so late into the evening that I had to skip dinner, thanks to a recalcitrant database that urgently needed some medical attention.

Wednesday was more of the same, though I did finish earlier, almost approximating a normal working day, since I had to lie down to get some much-needed rest and try to make my neck conform to a shape more readily approved by nature. The relatively early night was necessary to get me into a good enough condition for Thursday, which was the bright point of the week, since I was trading in the single-core monstrosity of a laptop I was somehow expected to do software development with for something a little more capable of the job. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement - my new laptop is a beaut.

With an Intel T7800 dual-core CPU running at 2.6GHz (a huge step up from a 1.67GHz single-core), 2GB of RAM, a 190GB hard drive, DVD-RW, and 512MB NVidia Quadro FX 570, running XP Pro, it actually rivals my games rig in terms of performance. It even has a fingerprint reader to handle the power-on and Windows logins, which is totally beyond cool. But the best thing is probably the LCD - a 15.4" 1920x1200 widescreen panel, which is absolutely colossal in terms of desktop size. I can run three windows at a readable size, so should be awesome for debugging. So, despite another 13 hour day (left home before 8am, didn't get back until gone 9pm) at least I don't have to fight the technology I'm given to work with anymore - well, when I've finished setting up all my ODBC and database settings again, anyway.

Friday was yet another long day - probably the longest of the week, since barring a couple of hours spent having dinner at a lovely little Chinese restaurant just outside of Chobham in the evening, I was working until gone midnight, because there were database fixes that needed finishing before Monday morning - and I just happen to have next week off, since I'm going to be replacing the kitchen floor; just the recipe for a nice, relaxing holiday!

So, a testing week... fingers crossed it can only get better from here.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Bark: Unforgivable?

If I hadn't been stuck in traffic for yet another futile hour (because of A WHOLE CENTIMETRE OF SNOW) dropping my lady off at work this morning, I'd be laughing my ass off at this.

An unforgivable insult? Personally, I think Jezza has two parts right at the very least.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Bark: This country is full of idiots

I know I'm not normally the avatar of calmness, but this morning I'm more irascible than usual. We had three-quarters of an inch of snow overnight and since the local council couldn't be bothered to grit the roads last night (because apparently, Britain is running out of grit), the route between my flat and the school my lady teaches at were a total disaster zone. We needed to do a twelve mile detour to travel an effective distance of ONE MILE, because there's a particularly steep hill just by where we live, and since people just panicked at the first sign of snow, it was utterly gridlocked. The last time that happened (back when they had to close the M11 a few years back) it took us well over an hour and a half just to get to the top of the hill.

So, using my local road knowledge, we detoured around to pick up our normal route, bypassing the hill, which still took us about forty minutes, but hey, that was still about half the time it would have taken us to get up the hill. Unfortunately, it didn't improve from there, because despite the road conditions not actually being that bad (it was 'wet' snow, so it wasn't even icing up), you had imbeciles stacking over roundabouts and blocking the exits so traffic couldn't flow properly and the whole area ground to a total halt. Almost another hour later (a further distance covered of about three miles, by this point - a net four miles from home, according to our normal route) and we get my lady to work, with only ten minutes remaining of the only class she's teaching for the day (talk about futile). And after a primal scream in the car, I decide to head off to my local office, since that would only take half an hour, rather than at least another hour it would have took attempting to go home via the same traffic jam I'd just endured.

I am so annoyed right now. Not even an inch of snow, and already my day is delayed and ruined, because the local morons can't cope with the unexpected. This country is really fucking pathetic.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bark: News round-up

This has got to be an early contender for Headline of the Year.

Continuing with the Australian theme: What. Le. Fuck?

While undoubtedly tragic, this story is surely worthy of a Darwin Award. Cause of death: Stupidity. Four teenage girls sitting on an unsteerable CAR ROOF going down an icy slope with barbed wire fences at the bottom isn't ever going to end well...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Byte: Getting annoying now

Okay, this new patch for WoW is seriously pissing me off now. Not only has it mightily nerfed two of my favourite classes (Death Knight and Hunter), it's also broken one of the very things it was trying to fix - namely lagging in instances - and broken it to the point that for some people (including me), the lag is so bad that it's practically impossible to play. I was getting latencies of over 7700 milliseconds last night - absolutely ridiculous, considering that otherwise there was nothing wrong with my internet connection - only WoW has the problem.

They better sort it out before I run out of low-level instances to solo... because even doing that is a painful experience. I did Ragefire Chasm and Gnomeregan last night, and when it takes 30 seconds to register a loot, it's starting to take the piss a bit. Gnomeregan is horrible enough when there's no lag - doing it with 3000+ millisecond latencies is just hideous.

I want to be levelling my Death Knight and doing instances in Northrend, but it's just impossible right now. I don't pay a monthly subscription to put up with this. Sort it out, Blizzard!

Monday, February 02, 2009

Byte: Dawn of WAAAAAAAARRRRGGGHHH!

I've not been playing so much WoW recently, since the new 3.0.8 patch has rendered the game so laggy as to be practically unplayable - and I don't appear to be the only person in my guild having the trouble, either. My other internet speeds don't appear to be affected and the lag is endemic regardless of which computer I use and it doesn't matter whether I'm playing in a high-population zone or not - 500ms is about the best I've seen since the new patch, put it's more frequently in the 2000ms range, which makes it impossible to do anything, really.

So I've been playing a little bit of the Dawn of War II beta instead, in skirmish mode against the AI. Graphically, the game's a big improvement over the original and the game has been streamlined a bit to bring it more into line with the system used by Company of Heroes - which is no bad thing, if you ask me. Some might say it's a little too dumbed down, but at least it means that you can have a skirmish game that will finish on the right side of two hours now. Obviously, given all the hype, I had to try out the Tyranids, and they're really rather cool. I particularly like the way their headquarters just spits out new units in clouds of goo.

It convinced me enough to put my pre-order cash down with Play, anyway, because what I'm really interested in is the single-player campaign. I've never really been one for RTS multiplayer, since you always seem to end up playing people who know all the tech trees backwards, have a tremor in their clicking finger that allows them to give three thousand build orders a second and have meticulously worked-out defensive strategies for every conceivable combination of attacking unit in the game. In other words, 12 year old obsessives, who are invariably SHOUTY, with terribly bad manners, and spelling to match. At least you know where you are with an AI.

Beyond that, I've been sticking serious time into Mass Effect on my lovely 360 Elite. I'm hoovering up all the side quests before I really make too much of an attempt to finish the story, so Noveria ended up being pretty easy, as I was already in the late 20's in terms of character level. And I've just stocked up on Spectre weapons before I toddle off to do Feros, so that ought to be pretty simple, too. One thing that I have found a lot harder, compared to the PC version, is the combat in the Mako. Since the control scheme doesn't allow you to move and aim independently of each other, you either end up having to use hit and run tactics, driving around in circles for half an hour until you actually end up landing with a shot, or staying still and bunny-hopping while you trade shots with Geth Armatures and rocket troopers, hoping they die before your shields give out. And Thresher Maws are best avoided entirely... I'm not looking forward to Virmire, where you have to take on Geth Colossuses (Colossi?), since they're even bigger and meaner than the Armatures.

Like last time on PC, I'm playing mainly with Wrex and Tali as my companions, as they give you the best all-round balance if you play as an out-and-out Soldier, which I'm doing for this playthrough. I'm also playing as a girl (for Jennifer Hale's sterling voiceover), and since the romance with the forgettable blue-arsed one is so dull, I may end up having to kill my beloved Ashley to see what the Kaiden romance storyline is like. Though guilt alone will probably mean I have to replay as a guy just so I can resurrect her.

Still, after playing the PC version so much, I'm pleasantly surprised by the 360 version. Some ugly texture pop-in aside, it looks amazing on my TV over the HDMI cable and it plays really well with the joypad. Hopefully BioWare won't make us wait too long for the sequel, especially now that I have the machine to play it right off the bat and not have to wait six months for the conversion.

Bark: End of world surely imminent

It's just as well I'd already arranged to work from home today, because when you get five inches of snow around here, it's like the Ice Age. All the schools are closed, and only the stupid go out on the roads.

Just look at the numpties in that video. Absolutely clueless. Revving the bollocks off your engine DOESN'T WORK IN SNOW. I've driven a fair bit in snow in France, where despite the general standard of the average driver being slightly below 'maniac', at least they know what to do when the roads get covered in snow and ice. Unlike here in Britain, where the general approach is a Clarksonesque MORE POWER!! - which inevitably leads to accidents because they don't have any control over their cars. So I took one look at the roads this morning, told my lady that the chances of me driving her to work were precisely nil (fortunately, they closed her school today) and went back to bed.

They've forecast similar for tomorrow as well. Thank goodness the fridge is well-stocked. I don't think I'm leaving the flat anytime soon...