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?