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...