Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bark: A funny thing happened on the way to the barber

I was queuing up at the cash point to take some money out for a much-needed haircut earlier this afternoon, when I noticed that the gentlemen at the ATM was taking an inordinate amount of time, fiddling at the buttons on the screen. I bite down my instinct to make a sarcastic comment like "Anytime today would be fine, mate", which I often do in my car when waiting for someone to make a decision to whether they should pull out into a junction or at a roundabout when they have clear right of way.

Just as well, really, because when he turns around IT'S BRIAN BLOODY BLESSED.

It's not every day that you get to use the same cash point as a national treasure. Though apparently, as my barber tells me, he lives just down the road and he's always in our local supermarket. Ten years I've been living here, and that's the first time I've seen him.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Byte: Doggie Style

I had an absolutely mucking fiserable day at work on Tuesday (Year 9, need I say more?), so coming home to find that Blizzard had sent me a copy of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm really made my month.

I've had a few hours over the past couple of days to play with it now, and in keeping with my chronic case of alt-o-holism, I rolled a new toon - a Worgen Druid - to check out the new Alliance race and starting area. No surprise - it's rather bloody good. The Worgen vibe is cockney Victoriana, with one of the early quest rewards being a rather natty top hat. You're into the action immediately, with your home city of Gilneas being invaded by vicious, feral Worgen, and it doesn't really stop until you take the boat to Darnassus around level 13, where you pick up the new, improved Darkshore quests.

The real highlights of the Worgen starting area are the missions where you get to fight off the Forsaken invasion of Gilneas, whether it's by foot, by air, or my vehicle. The two missions where you get to take out the orcs reinforcing the Forsaken invasion with a Night Elf Glaive Launcher and by assaulting an airborne gunship are the real standouts towards the end of the starting area, but there are plenty of other nice moments to help liven up your first few hours. Most surprising is the introduction of in game cutscenes to mark particularly significant story developments (the first being your transformation from a human into a Worgen) - there's a real push to make your more involved with the story, rather than just have you dash off to kill the next set of mobs.

I really like my Worgen, incidentally. Blizzard have nailed the character mannerisms of these curious dog-people - and naturally, there are all-new dances and flirts that are sure to raise a smile. I especially like their lurching, ungainly stride as they run and I'm looking forward to reaching level 20, where they learn the 'run on all fours' ability, which has them running as fast as a standard mount, without actually needing one. Their other racial bonuses (fast skinning, increased crit rating and Darkflight - a brief speed boost ability) make Worgen perfect for Feral Druids or Rogues - and their feral forms for Druids are pretty funky. I can see me levelling up my new Worgen up to level 60 to take in the revised Azeroth content, because what I've seen of the revised zones so far looks really good. Thousand Needles is much more interesting now that it's been flooded and many other zones have really been improved. Darkshore has been ripped to shreds and Desolace actually has sprouted a few points of interest, post-Catacylsm.

I haven't had time yo take in all the changes to Azeroth yet, but I hear good things about the new versions of Stonetalon Mountains and the revised zone around Astranaar - I look forward to checking them out with my Worgen to see if the hype is justified.

The downside of having new races to play with is that it tempts you into neglecting your level 80s. I haven't really got stuck into the high end content yet, but I'm pleased to report that at least they're not charging thousands of gold to get your master pilots license to fly in Azeroth. Top whack (without rep bonuses) is a mere 250 gold, which is affordable at day one even for mainly casual players like me. Flying mounts in Azeroth is a bit of a game changer, but it has been balanced out by Blizzard nuking all the capital city portals in Shattrath and Dalaran (no doubt due to the effect of the cataclysm) - so you do really need fast access to flying mounts in Azeroth. On Tuesday night I did feel obliged to pay a visit to Mount Hyjal, since it's so prominent in the lore. First impressions: FECK ME, IT'S HUGE.

After the scale of the areas in Wrath of the Lich King, the design doesn't quite feel so amazing, but it's hard to not be impressed by the variety and grandeur of the design. And for a non-raiding, guildless casual like me, the quest rewards are ridiculously better than the blues I have right now. It shouldn't take too long to get my main up to the new level cap, and it's refreshing to see that they haven't added in filler content to enable people to gain an extra ten levels instead of five, just for the sake of getting extra levels.

I doubt that there's anything in Cataclysm that would persuade WoW-haters to change their mind about the game, but I don't suppose that's the point. Cataclysm ought to make Blizzard another couple of warehousefuls of cash - since it does make efforts to improve an already great game. I can't wait to see all the new zones, particularly the high-end content and the Goblin starting zone - this expansion pack is going to keep me busy for a long time. You can expect to see more missives from me inbound from Azeroth over the coming months.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bark: Movember

I've donated my face to charity this month, the month of Movember, because not only have a lot of my pupils asked whether I'm growing a beard for charity (due to me not shaving through lack of time in the morning), but also because I got the horrible but not entirely unexpected news this week that one of my friends, who was diagnosed as having terminal liver cancer about six months ago, has been taken off chemotherapy and only has a few weeks left to live.

So I'd really appreciate it if you could donate a few quid/dollars/Euros* to a good cause and I will post humiliating pictures of my Merv Hughes-inspired hideous upper-lip-carpet for the rest of the month on my MoSpace page.

Show your support here. Cheers.

*delete as applicable

Friday, July 30, 2010

Byte: I am Murloc!

I just downloaded a Murloc Gurgle ringtone for my mobile phone.

I am such a geek.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Byte: Your game is nothing compared to Starcraft 2! Part 2


This game is good. Damn good. The production values are amazing. If the game's budget really was $100 million (though Blizzard are trying to debunk the Wall Street Journal's original report of this figure - and WSJ have retracted the report, apparently), I think half of it went on the cinematics, because they're bloody incredible. The cutscenes are absolutely stunning - you can see the skin pores in people's faces, for frick's sake. Are videogame characters finally climbing out of the Uncanny Valley? Maybe.

It'll be another few days before I've played enough to review it properly, but everything I've seen so far says "two thumbs up".

Friday, July 23, 2010

Byte: Your game is nothing compared to Starcraft 2!

Having used my teacher training year to successfully avoid all the hype and the beta, I wasn't going to get too excited about Starcraft 2. But then I wasn't expecting a totally unsolicited review copy to drop through my letterbox this morning, either.

Of course, it won't install, because Blizz haven't turned on the activation servers yet (it gives me a "come back on the 27th" message when I try), but at least I have something to look forward to on Tuesday, now. When you haven't written a review in nine months (or more, I really can't recall) it's nice that the first one you have to get back in the saddle is the biggest frickin' PC game release of the year. Sweet.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bark: Alignment update

Every so often I like to do a gaming mental health check, using an AD&D character generator test. Here are my latest results.

I Am A: True Neutral Human Sorcerer (5th Level)

Ability Scores:







True Neutral A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Sorcerers are arcane spellcasters who manipulate magic energy with imagination and talent rather than studious discipline. They have no books, no mentors, no theories just raw power that they direct at will. Sorcerers know fewer spells than wizards do and acquire them more slowly, but they can cast individual spells more often and have no need to prepare their incantations ahead of time. Also unlike wizards, sorcerers cannot specialize in a school of magic. Since sorcerers gain their powers without undergoing the years of rigorous study that wizards go through, they have more time to learn fighting skills and are proficient with simple weapons. Charisma is very important for sorcerers; the higher their value in this ability, the higher the spell level they can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Detailed Results:

Lawful Good ----- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Neutral Good ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (17)
Chaotic Good ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (15)
Lawful Neutral -- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)
Chaotic Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (19)
Lawful Evil ----- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Neutral Evil ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
Chaotic Evil ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)

Law & Chaos:
Law ----- XXXXX (5)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Chaos --- XXXXXXXX (8)

Good & Evil:
Good ---- XXXXXXX (7)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXX (11)
Evil ---- XXXXXXXX (8)

Human ---- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Dwarf ---- XXXXXXXX (8)
Elf ------ XXXXXXXX (8)
Gnome ---- XXXXXX (6)
Halfling - XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Half-Elf - XXXXXXXX (8)
Half-Orc - XXXXXX (6)

Barbarian - (-2)
Bard ------ (-4)
Cleric ---- (-4)
Druid ----- (0)
Fighter --- (0)
Monk ------ (-19)
Paladin --- (-23)
Ranger ---- XXXX (4)
Rogue ----- (-4)
Sorcerer -- XXXXXX (6)
Wizard ---- XXXX (4)

Nice to know that my alignment hasn't changed since last time (though I am sliding dangerously close to Neutral Evil), but very interesting that I've switched from Half-Elf to Human and my class has changed to Sorceror, too. I guess like Anders from Dragon Age: Awakening, I just want to be able to shoot lightning at fools, too.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bark: They call it schadenfreude



I can't wait to see what kind of vegetable The Sun will Photoshop the head of Fabio Capello into tomorrow morning.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Byte: Steam summer sale

Dammit, Steam! Why must you tempt me with cut price games that I feel compelled to buy, even though I know I probably won't put more than a couple of hours into each of them??

Mount and Blade: Warband's a must at that price, though. And so's the super-duper-starship-trooper version of The Witcher, too. My review copy doesn't want to work anymore, so I had to, really...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Byte: 3654 Days'o'sex

This week is Deus Ex's 10 year anniversary. RPS's Verdict is probably all you really need to read about the game, but that's not going to stop me from talking about my memories, both old and recent.

Deus Ex is one of those rare games that I keep coming back to, despite the fact that I've completed it. Though the story of how (and when) I completed it is a tale worth telling in itself. I bought the game the week it came out (thanks to KG's legendary review of it in PCG) and it was the first game that ever really made me see the potential that videogames had as interactive storytelling devices. (Note that I hadn't actually played Half-Life at this point)

The first level (Liberty Island) was a marvel, though predictably, I initially tried playing the game like Doom and ran into the steepest learning curve I'd encounter in a game until playing EVE Online - though my first memory of Deus Ex (after the hideously animated, but intriguing, opening cutscene) was of Paul Denton running up to you at the beginning and asking you to pick from a sniper rifle, a GEP gun or a mini-crossbow. I was horrified. I'd never played an RPG (on computer, at least) so while I knew from the review that it wasn't your average FPS, I wasn't expecting to have to make a decision quite that quickly. How was I supposed to decide based on so little prior information? I took a punt on the GEP gun, which probably turned out to be the best decision I made in the first 15 hours of the game, in all honesty, since you don't get the opportunity to pick another one up for hours, while the other two are freely available to be picked up from NPCs in the first level. Hurrah for out-of-context problems!

Anyway. My first attempt at wending my way through the NSF ranks to get to the top of the statue was an absolute disaster. I didn't twig the RPG accuracy mechanics and ran out of ammunition before I'd even killed two terrorists. And then I got slaughtered. The number of times I died trying to beat that level the first time... I'm not sure I can even give a reasonable estimate. But we're talking dozens. There was something compelling about the game, though. It took me probably about six hours to explore all the options of how to complete that one level - the front door, the crate climb at the back, the air ducts in the tower foyer, hacking ATMs, lockpicking medbot hideaways, using the turrets to blow away the NSF guards... The game just gave you so much scope. Once I'd grasped the mechanics of the game - by playing that one level for longer than it takes to complete Call of Duty: Modern Warfare! - I was absolutely hooked. The game also tapped into the whole X-Files-inspired government conspiracy theory zeitgeist of the late-90s, early-noughties (this was pre-9/11, though much was made of the lack of the World Trade Centre towers on the Manhattan skyline in the opening level - eeriely prescient, looking back), so it was easy to overlook the manifold technical flaws, because it was just so different to everything else I'd ever played.

Perhaps the most surprising thing for me at the time was the fact that once the initial mission was over, the game didn't simply whisk you off to the next one. Instead, you got to go back to base and kick around the HQ, where you'd be able to listen in to the idle chat of your co-workers and their paranoia about the vending machines, read papers and "accidentally" finding your way into the ladies toilet... (and getting your wrist slapped by Manderley for it) It had an absolutely coherent game world and the transitions between maps made total sense within the context of the game, making it a relatively seamless experience.

The game really comes alive in Hong Kong (despite the dreadfully cheap voice acting) and there are some brilliant levels - not least the infiltration into the MJ-12 research lab. Hong Kong is also the first place where you meet the absolutely rat-bastard, hard-as-nails MJ-12 Commandos, who have wrist-rockets that would make Boba Fett proud. If you haven't got a scoped, silent pistol or a sniper rifle at this point to take them out with headshots, you're going to have a hard time with them, even with the ballistic protection mod. Of course, the real Deus Ex hardcore insist on only killing people with the lightsaber (sorry, Dragons Tooth sword) that you pick up in Hong Kong, or indeed, not killing anyone at all (I never had the patience for that). I think Hong Kong is many people's favourite section of the game, and I'd probably agree with that, though there are still several standout levels in the rest of the game.

The Naval Base infiltration when you get back to New York, so that you can sink the tanker carrying the plague virus is a real corker. Security bots, lots of mobs, and several ways into the submarine pen, each with their own distinct challenges. Then when you're actually on the tanker, there are plenty of things to do in there beyond just cracking the seals to sink the ship. I doubt it would make many people's favourite level list from Deus Ex, but for me it was one of the most memorable, because by this point I'd ploughed enough points into the support skills (Computer, Lockpick and Electronics) to really have a go at every single entry point and open up all the options in the game.

After that, it gets a little mental with the conspiracy theories and the plotting (but in an endearing way), when you go back across the pond to Paris, where there are some even more spectacular moments in the annals of atrocious videogame voice-acting. Oh lord, the accents. And I thought the faux-Australian of the philosophical bartender in Hong Kong was bad... Keep your ear out from the "I am a Frenchman" clearly voiced by the guy from Paris. Paris, Texas, that is... Brrrr. The Paris levels aren't so great, but the Notre Dame level was a highlight for me, as it was the first level where I seriously tried infiltration, albeit with a silenced sniper rifle. Those MJ-12 commandos didn't last long. And the finale of the mission is a showdown with Gunther, who regrettably doesn't last long either. Not against an assault rifle packing 20mm explosive rounds, anyway.

So while Paris isn't so fantastique, things do pick up again for the remainder of the game. The level where you have to rescue Gary Savage's daughter (before heading off to the Ocean Lab to sort out Walton Simons) is another tight little level that gives you an almost bewildering amount of ways to approaching one particular problem: how do you kill the three MIBs (who explode on death) guarding Savage's daughter, without tipping them off and having them murder her before you eliminate all of them, or have her die in the fight. The Ocean Lab is a bit of a pain in the arse, frankly (goddamn greasy greasels and krappy karkians!) - a silenced sniper rifle is pretty essential if you don't want to get your legs shot off trying to approach the building. From then on, it's a pretty straight run towards the end game in Area 51, which is actually where I left the game and stopped playing. I can't remember what I started playing instead (No One Lives Forever, maybe?) but while I started new characters and tried out different kits (hacker, non-lethal, assault, etc) - playing the game through again as far as Paris - it was years before I dug out my old save game and actually went back to complete the game. I did blog about it at the time (a year or two back), but I can't seem to find the post right now.

In some ways, it was a bit of an anti-climax, as I'd spent the entire game hoarding explosive ammunition, so I wiped through the final level in about half and hour flat, blasting my way through MJ-12 commandos, security and spider bots with absolute impugnity, using my GEP gun and the 20mm assault rifle ammo. I didn't try out all three ending - just the Helios one - though I may go back and try out the other two in time. Given that it's the 10 year anniversary (and also given that I'm on holiday) I am tempted to go back and play it again and really try my best to break the game, knowing what I know now about the levels, story and the way the game engine itself works.

Deus Ex is still probably the most well-designed game ever made, in terms of allowing the player to approach situations and find creative solutions that the designers never anticipated. And it's this that I really love about Deus Ex. Most games give you one tool to do one job. Or maybe they give you a couple of ways of solving one problem. Deus Ex designs in at least two ways of approaching a problem and if you're creative enough, you can use the game mechanics to find at least two more. Whether it's a LAM trap reverse-ambush, a turret hack or simply sneaking through a vent and avoiding combat entirely, Deus Ex can be played if you like combat, or if you like stealth, or if you like trying to find ways of subverting the design. There's obviously a bit of a risk there, in that you throw away your suspension of disbelief and don't take the game seriously, but the story is well-executed, if outlandish. The fact that the designers catered for so many eventualities in the way the story can develop (such as choosing to kill Anna Navarre instead of Lebedev on the 747, or blowing up the hostages - either by accident or design - in the Battery Park subway station) shows just how good this game is.

If you never did play it back in the day (or in the subsequent 3650 days since), it's still a must-play for a PC gamer. I don't think we'll ever see its like again (not with today's blockbuster-or-bust development 'philosophy'), and it will be interesting to see just how well Deus Ex 3 lives up to its heritage (my prediction: shiny, but ultimately a bit rubbish. What a shame.). It still rates in my Top 5 PC games and it's certainly one of the most replayable, thanks to the design. I'll have to get around to playing some of the mods I've missed out on, as well - especially the Nameless Mod, of which I keep hearing very nice things. So how could I sum the game up, in one short, pity sentence that entirely removes any need for you to read that huge mass of text above? Ambitious, intricate, brilliant, flawed, yet more than the sum of its parts; Deus Ex is all these things and many more - I can envisage it still being revered as a classic in another ten years. It's really that good.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Byte: Best. Game. Ever.

Well, maybe not ever. But it is brilliant. I heard about this via RPS and was totally sold by the video, especially the music in the first half. It's just so appropriate. Warning: the video does contain some naughty words.

Go play Transformice today! (If you can find a working server)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Byte: Movie misquote review - Dragon Age: Origins

I love the sound of Shield Bash in the morning. Sounds like... VICTOLY.

(Inspired by: Apocalypse Now)

Bark: They think it's all over... it is now!

No, I'm not talking about the England football team's sense of entitlement, rather the fact that for pretty much the first time in nine months, I actually have a free moment. Though the coincidence that my PGCE course should finish in time for the second week of the World Cup and the first week of Wimbledon is a real bonus...

Teacher training is without doubt the hardest thing I've ever done, but now, having survived the year, I can say that it's also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things, too. That's not to say that I'm not looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing summer. I have every intention of doing a huge amount of gaming and writing over the next two months, until I start my job in my new school in September.

I'm going to kick off my summer by starting a new meme - videogame reviews in the form of movie misquotes. You'll see what I mean by that in my next post. But other than my games writing, I also want to work on a film script based on an idea that's been kicking around my brain for the last few months. I'll keep you posted of how that goes. So here's to a brief period (at least) of more frequent blogging and writing - and a nice, relaxing summer.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Byte: Modern Warfare

I recently got around to playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, thanks to it coming down to a reasonable price on Steam. Having come to the game after all the hype surrounding it has calmed down, I would have to say that it's one of the best shooters I've played since Far Cry 2 - though I would have to say I prefer Far Cry 2 in respect of it not being utterly on rails, though some of Modern Warfare's set pieces are absolutely brilliant.

The reason for this post, however, is less to do with the fact that I've finally gotten around to playing the game, but more to do with one particular level - All Ghillied Up - which is probably my favourite in the entire game, since it plays like what my conception of what being an elite, special forces soldier would actually be like on a mission behind enemy lines, without backup. Some of the level is Operation Flashpoint-esque: crawling around in a ghillie suit, trying not to be trodden on by enemy troopers (or run over by BMP-2s), while still allowing you to do silent takedowns of lone patrols (Gotta love that silenced M-21). The level is great for building suspense and tension without ever really giving you much of a chance to relieve it. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much the whole way through.

A lot of the time in linear FPS games, you can see where the level designers have thought "we need to throw in more excitement here", if you've not had a firefight for 200 yards, but this level is all the better for restraining its hand. Less is most definitely more. I was shitting my pants as I was crawling through a field, three yards behind the arse of my commander, as a couple of dozen troops and four BMPs were coming the other way toward us. You know that one mistake is instant death - fighting your usual "I'LL TAKE YOU ALL ON!" impulse that you get in FPS games really sets your heart pounding.

And still, there are odd moments of levity. Captain MacMillan (your CO for the mission) has some great lines, not least when you see a wild dog gnawing on the corpse of a dead civilian - "Pooch doesn't look too friendly." It's the kind of gallows humour you'd expect from people whose trade is the dealing (and possible receiving) of death.

It's a great level, and the fact that you don't do a lot of shooting covers the big flaw in the overall game (and its sequel) - infinitely respawning enemies. They're there to help to force the pace - as in, they stop respawning if you keep moving forward - but I still think infinite respawns are a hateful design choice. Some situations call for a defensive action, but COD doesn't have any of that - it either makes you keep moving or run out of ammunition, and that's a big flaw in any shooter that could be seen as being of a more tactical bent (like the ArmAs or Delta Forces of this world). No Spec Ops soldier in their right mind would push themselves forward into the kind of situations that COD presents you with - but admittedly, it is just a game, and therefore NOT REAL.

It's the SAS levels that really make the game for me - the USMC ones are good, but lack a little of the edginess of the SAS ones. I was also pleasantly surprised by the voice-acting. Captain Price and Gaz are real standouts, despite them being voiced by cast-offs from The Bill and Eastenders, respectively. Somehow, it just works. And the final couple of levels are simply awesome - given that its the Brits, not the ubiquitous Yanks who take the lead in the missions. The finale is great, too, where Soap has to take out three Ultra-nationalists (include The Big Bad) with just seven rounds from Price's .45 calibre pistol. They don't call me "Double-tap, one kill" for nothing...

Actually, they don't call me that at all, but that's another story...

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Byte: Reasons why I play more games on consoles than PC

I'll gloss over the fact that I've not posted here in months and instead get straight back into dispensing my inimitable brand of games punditry. (It's inimitable not due to reasons of style, but because no-one would be stupid enough to want to copy it...)

One of the many side effects of doing a PGCE is that all your free time tends to evaporate, being consumed by the three-headed monster of lesson planning, resource preparation and assorted administration. This means that over the last nine months or so, I've had precious little time for gaming, let alone blogging or games journalism. Over these nine months, there have been quite a few changes in my gaming habits.

Firstly, nightly gaming sessions are now non-existent. These days I'm lucky if I get to play for more than an hour at a time on a couple of nights a week. With my gaming time now so much more precious and limited, I can't afford to be so indiscriminate with my gaming habits.

Secondly, the time of day when I usually do get to play is in the early hours of the morning, when all work has ceased and I don't have access to my gaming PC (due to its location in the bedroom) - my lady would not approve of me clicking and tapping away as she tried to sleep.

Thirdly, when I do get to play something, I'm usually so tired that I can't managed anything too complicated. It's got to be simple to pick up and play, and also not so addictive that I can't put it down again when I want to get some sleep.

Additionally, when I do want to play something, I want it to work without having to spend hours fiddling around with it to get a frame rate or have the content work properly. Xbox Live just *works*. Games for Windows Live (which I only use for Dawn of War II) is a monstrosity that never signs in properly, even on Windows 7. And don't even get me started on publisher-specific "points" systems that replace real money when you want to download new content for your game onto your PC. I tried that with Dragon Age: Origins, and it's a clusterfuck. Not only does the game refuse to log in to the servers 99.9999% of the time (and yes, I've tried every solution in every single support thread in the BioWare forums, and it's still fucked), I've got "points" (i.e. money) that are sitting in EA's deep pockets that I can't even spend because I can't log into my account via the game client... You're on a PC with access to the internet, for fucks sake. What's wrong with just using Paypal? Or a credit card? I can understand using points systems for consoles, where you might have users that don't have credit cards and buy their points on cards from GAME, but for the PC it's just incomprehensible. Say you want to buy a Dragon Age add-on for the PC. First, you have to register with BioWare and then buy "BioWare points" (with yout credit card) that you can only redeem through the game client to buy content. So if the login system in the client is screwed, they've just taken your money and you can't do a damn thing with it. Surely it should not be beyond the wit of man to be able to pay for and download the content directly onto your PC via the wonders of Teh Interwebs?

So is it any wonder then, that I decided that I was going to buy Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360, because then, a) I knew it would run properly, b) have a content download system that worked, and c) be on a machine that I could play on when my beloved was getting her beauty sleep.

The old argument (that I used to endorse) for gaming on the PC was that the games looked better, had more depth and sharper controls. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. Higher resolutions be damned, I'd much rather play Mass Effect 2 on a 32" LCD TV than a 22" widescreen monitor. (I've even played Halo on a 8 foot wide projector, but that's another story) Games on the 360 look just as good as most titles I play on my PC (if not better on the larger screen), and in the few cases they don't, well... I can live with it.

On the second point, it's only really in the strategy genre that the PC truly has the consoles licked in terms of depth. I doubt you're ever going to see Sins of a Solar Empire on the 360, but given that I don't have time to play 4X games other than when I'm on holiday, that's no great loss either. In every other gaming genre, you can't argue for PCs being better on grounds of depth, given that the games that migrate from one platform to another are usually pretty identical. And usually for multiplatform titles, it's the PC that gets the raw end of the deal in being sloppily ported (how many PC games can you name where they're better off played with a 360 pad than a keyboard and mouse?) Bad ports to console are relatively rare, by comparison.

Even on the last point - controls - there's been a definite improvement in recent years. I've played a fair few titles on both PC and 360 over the last year or two and I actually found Far Cry 2 more playable on 360 than on the PC. Given that I'm equally useless in an FPS game with either a mouse or a pad (something I have proven again to myself in the last few days playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on PC and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on 360), I'm leaning towards the console again on grounds of player-friendliness.

My PC is starting to show its age now, and earlier this week I scared my lady by looking at the prices for a new quad-core monster PC that would see me through another couple of years gaming. And then I thought, is it really worth it? There aren't really that many PC-exclusive titles out in the next year that I'm genuinely stoked about. (Starcraft II? Couldn't give a Protoss...) Sure, the PC gets cheaper games, but how many would I have to buy to offset the cost of the hardware, compared to just buying the games on 360? More games than I have the time to play, for sure...

And then there's what might be the final nail in the coffin - DRM. There was absolutely no way I was going to buy Splinter Cell: Conviction on the PC. It's a stonking game, but with Ubisoft's new and slightly evil "always on or you're off" online authentication system, the 360 version was the only option, really. I'm not going to put up with that kind of rubbish for a game that's run entirely locally and doesn't have a server-based component. No doubt conspiracy theorists are saying it's some dastardly corporate scheme to force gamers off the PC onto the more profitable consoles, but personally I think it's just idiocy, rather than a plan. Let's hope that one doesn't turn into a trend.

I'm not about to abandon PC gaming entirely - the awesomeness of GOG and Steam should see to that - but it has slipped off its long-time perch as my primary gaming platform for the time being. Such heresy! I'm no longer a PC gaming fanboy. My former forum alter-ego (LORDTHRAWN) must be spinning in his virtual grave...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bark: All quiet on the Eastern Front

Apologies for the lack of activity here over the last few weeks and months. Things are very much hotting up on the teacher training front and I barely have time for the niceties of things like eating and sleep, let along gaming and blogging.

I've been averaging less than five hours sleep a night for the last month and I'm working about 16 hours a day (though I get to take a break on weekends - I only work 12 hours a day then), so I'm pretty much dead on my feet. Where they expect me to find the time to apply for jobs and finish writing my essay assignments, I have no idea...

I used to think I worked pretty hard as a corporate slave, but it doesn't even compare to the workload you have as a trainee teacher. It's easily the hardest work I've ever done, but at least I'm still enjoying it in the main. Everyone in the department is wonderfully supportive, understanding and helpful - even the kids are great for the most part. The only group I'm really having trouble with are my Year 8, who - bless them - aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the box. There are some lovely characters in there, but they do like to make life hard for themselves (and me). So I'm being thoroughly evil with them, so they remember just who is in charge. I almost reduced one of them to tears in our lesson on Friday, because I sent him out for swinging a stopwatch about by its string while I was attempting to explain something to the class. It's the first time I've ever had to send someone out of a lesson, but at least it had the desired effect. They will learn... eventually.

I'm going to have a little "me time" over the Easter break, where I will be able to do a bit of gaming and writing, so expect to hear about my adventures with Miranda, Tali and Jack in Mass Effect 2 that I have managed to squeeze into my Friday nights over the last month or two, plus a few raging laments about the rubbishness of the DLC system in the PC version of Dragon Age. Is it really too much ask that EA should be able to allow you to log into a system that allows you to download extra missions and content after you've already forked out the money to buy them with their godawful "BioWare Points"? Judging by my spectacular lack of success with it, apparently it is... Higher resolutions be damned. I don't have to put up with this kind of rubbish on the 360... but that's a story for another time, when I don't still have another three lessons to plan before I go to bed.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Byte: The inhumanity of videogaming

Don't get me wrong. I love videogames where you get to shoot people in the face as much as the next sociopath (indeed, tonight I came home from Sainsburys with a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on Xbox 360 so that I can shoot my friends in the face online), but I've been trying to think of games that eschew this violent formula and have game mechanics that are genuinely positive and actually serve to help other people rather than yourself.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I'm coming up rather empty. I've played hundreds, if not thousands of videogames over the last three decades (give or take a couple of years) and I'm having difficulty of thinking of any games set in the real-world (or a non-abstract game world where there are people) where the core game mechanics don't involve you going around blowing shit up or murdering people.

There are some games like the Phoenix Wright and Trauma Centre series where the aim of the game is to help people rather than find innovative ways of rearranging their internal organs (or indeed, making their internal organs external), but these are very much the exception, not the rule. The problem is that games like these tend to be quite scripted and not have much replay value - hence they can never really be popular with the online crowd and will more often than not end up back in the store on the second hand resale racks.

But I do recall one game from my early gaming days that didn't involve fighting, killing or blowing shit up that was set in a simulated real-world setting and asked you to do truly humanitarian work. And I was hooked on it for years.

That game is Cyclone, on the ZX Spectrum.

Cyclone was an early game from Vortex Software (or as my brother and I liked to call it, Costa Panayi Software, since this was still the era of bedroom coders, where one man could set up a successful software games company) that cast you in the role of a Search and Rescue (or, to use the proper parlance, SAR) helicopter pilot. The game was set in an archipelago stricken by the storm-force winds of a violent cyclone - essentially a hurricane or typhoon, depending on which longitudinal hemisphere you happen to live in (I always assumed the game to be set in a fictional set of islands in the Carribean, but that was more a personal flight of fancy than anything). The biggest thing that struck me about the game was that the primary antagonist of the game was utterly unbiased and impartial - a force of nature. The one other threat in the game is the possible collision with low-flying aircraft, but this rarely becomes an issue, once you learn the flight paths they follow.

Though the game thrusts you into a tragic situation - a natural disaster, where people are in peril - the overriding aim of playing the game is overwhelmingly positive and humanitarian. Your role as a SAR pilot means that you have to rescue helpless civilians from danger and return them to the central island that houses the headquarters of the rescue effort and base of operations. In order to progress between difficulty levels (harder difficulty meaning that you lose control of your helicopter and crash at lower values on the Wind Force bar), you need to collect six supply crates and return them to the HQ. Additionally, you may also choose to rescue civilians for bonus points. Mechanically, the game is quite challenging as you have a set time limit to find and return the supply crates for each level, and they may be located absolutely anywhere throughout the archipelago. Not only that, some of the islands don't have helipads, so if you have to land due to the wind force getting too high, you will continue to lose fuel while the winds batter overhead.

So playing Cyclone becomes a balancing act. Do you just concentrate on returning the supply crates to base, or do you try the completist approach and go for the highest score possible? The latter is most rewarding, both existentially and in terms of points score, yet is by far the hardest to achieve given the time limits and the capriciousness of the cyclone. Both my brother and I, should you talk to us about Cyclone, would tell you that we suspect that the AI cheats. The cyclone will seemingly wander the map randomly until you need just one more crate and then it will make it almost impossible to retrieve the last crate by simply hovering over the area until you run out of time (this is especially true if you've progressed five levels or more and the wind force doesn't actually have to get into the "DANGER!" part of the wind force bar before you can no longer control your helicopter.

One of the odd things about playing Cyclone was that even as a pre-teenage kid, I was fiercely gallant: there was only space on my helicopter for the women. The Titanic evacuation approach definitely held true for me - women and children first! The blokes? Well, fuck 'em. They can take their chances... (This may explain my more recent gaming predilection for RPGs - this desire to do what is morally "right" is very Lawful Good) More often than not, I tried to adhere to the completist approach, mainly because I enjoyed the experience of flying the helicopter around more than anything else - and that the one problem with the game was that after level 5 or so, the helicopter just became so sensitive to the wind that the game started to become unplayable.

Even so, the experience of playing the game and the warm fuzzy sensation of knowing that you'd helped and rescued (virtual) people more than made up for the mechanical flaws in the game. Cyclone was the first game that made me think more about the other characters within the game and their well-being than my own progression through the game. In other words, most games are selfishly revolved around the experience and survival of the player. Cyclone, on the hand, revolves around the selflessness of the player. Do they want to do the most good, or do they want to top the high score chart?

What surprises me is that after a full quarter of a century after I first played this game, I'm finding it difficult to name another example of a videogame where you're expected to act with the same level of selflessness. I grant you that even in 1985 the vast majority of videogames were still about blowing shit up or killing people, but regardless, I find it somewhat dissapointing that we're still churning out videogames obsessed by death, violence and destruction like they're ten-a-penny, while fantastically compelling and uplifting games like Cyclone are a rareity.

Good drama requires conflict, self-evidently. The question I would like to pose to game designers is that why does this conflict always have to involve shooting each other in the face with small arms? Good games don't require explicit, graphic violence and death to be compelling. I'd like to see more developers to make games like Cyclone and fewer generic cover-based shooters with BIGZ SHINY GRAPHIX like Gears of War 2. Not only would be videogaming be more diverse as a form of artistic media as a result, but it would lead to some more interesting games being produced as well. The intransigence of Nature is a great narrative device that could be used far more within games. Instead, most developers would rather play it safe and let people run around and shoot each other dead in ever greater graphical fidelity. And I can't help thinking that's rather sad...

Thursday, February 18, 2010


You hear that? That's the death knell of PC gaming being sounded. Well, if you listen to the doomsayers of the Ubipocalypse, at any rate. I've not delved too deeply into the nine page comments thread (for reasons that must be fairly self-evident), but clearly there's rather a lot of nerd rage and strong feeling rumbling around about this at the moment.

I can certainly understand why. I've been PC gaming since, oooh... 1995. I consider myself to be primarily a PC gamer (indeed, I still subscribe to PCG UK) but despite all the talk about PC gaming "dying" that has floated around the internet ever since the release of the Xbox and PS2 a decade ago, I never really believed any of it, until now.

Certainly, PC games retailing on the High Street is pretty much dead and buried. You only need to look into your local GAME store. Ten years ago, half the store would be devoted to PC. Now you're lucky to get more than three or four racks. These days I tend to buy my PC games via Play or Steam - I rarely venture into GAME these days, and even more rarely actually buy stuff in there. If I get anything from there at all, it's usually for my consoles, and even then only if it's on sale and I can get it cheaper than I can from Play. But the overall trend in recent years for PC gaming is worrying. Multiformat titles generally come out first on the consoles, and the PC ports are generally pretty shoddy. There are a few exceptions to this (Dragon Age would be a recent example), but even here, PC game publishers seem to manage to take aim squarely at their foot and pull the trigger.

To use Dragon Age as an example again, the Downloadable Content system on the PC version is totally, totally borked. 99% of the time I can't get it to recognise my internet connection is active, meaning I can't log into the DLC servers, so despite having the "BioWare Points" (seriously, don't get me started on that) available to buy the Return to Ostagar DLC, I can't log in to spend my "points" (money, I would note, that already sits in BioWare's pockets, yet I can do nothing with). Compare this to Xbox Live, and suddenly the 360 version looks a whole lot more attractive. This was one of the reasons that I decided to get Mass Effect 2 for 360, rather than PC - because at least I can be sure that the DLC system is going to work and I will get a decent frame rate (something that can't be guaranteed on the PC) and there's no ridiculously draconian DRM to worry about. (I don't think having to have the DVD in the drive is a draconian restriction - though I'm sure some would be prepared to argue the toss on that)

It's just as well that there's bugger all on Ubisoft's confirmed PC release schedule for this year that I was interested in, because this DRM is beyond a joke - and my internet connection is generally pretty solid. It's bad enough that you make your customers wait 6 months for something that's fairly inevitably going to be a fairly shonky port, and then bundle in a DRM system that kicks you out of the game if you have a wobble in the stability of your internet connection. You don't get this kind of bullshit with console games, which almost inevitably means for mainstream, multiplatform games I will generally be buying them on 360 in the future, because at least then I can be sure they're going to WORK. It'll only then really be MMOs, indie, strategy games and PC-exclusive RPGs that I'll buy on PC.

I don't think it's going to be that long until we see the PC games market disappear from the High Street entirely (I give it 5-10 years, max), with what's left being exclusively distributed through digital download services like Steam, Impulse and GOG. I can also see a lot of the big publishers abandoning the PC as a gaming platform for anything other than MMOs over the next decade, too. Personally, I don't think that's such a bad thing - if it means that we'll get back to the real roots of PC gaming through the indie scene. It makes more sense for the big budget publishers to go for the console mass market and leave the PC to cater for niche markets that don't have to worry about Hollywood-grade shiny production values.

Frankly, I can live without the Assassins Creeds and Splinter Cells of this world if it means we can atill get things released on PC like DEFCON, Mount and Blade or Sins of a Solar Empire. Ubisoft are just trying to defend their bottom line in the PC market, and while I can appreciate that, I do think they're going about it in entirely the wrong way - a way that's alienating the very market they're trying to encourage to buy their game and not go stampeding for the nearest torrent site. I'm not convinced by the argument that 'better DRM = less piracy = better sales', given that we PC users like to be able to use our software the way we like - not have unreasonable methods of use imposed upon us. You only need to look at the SecuROM scandals surrounding Bioshock and Spore to understand the depth of feeling surrounding the topic - feelings that no doubt contributed to Spore being one of the most rapidly and voraciously pirated games ever.

If the big publishers (barring the ever redoubtable Valve) do decide to abandon the PC as a gaming platform, to be honest, I'm not that worried. After all, I've still got my 360 and most of the games I get on PC these days are indie PC exclusives anyway. So no great loss, really. Still, it will be interesting to see how Ubisoft's sales figures for their PC games hold up over the next few months.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bark: Wait, it gets better!

As predicted, yesterday's service for my car (admittedly, one that was about four thousand miles overdue) was expensive. Cheaper than I'd feared, but still the thick-end of a monkey (that's not a euphemism - or not a sexual one, at least - a 'monkey' is £500 in gaming parlance) and the garage wasn't even able to fix the problem of the loss of power from the engine. They did, however, at least manage to identify the problem: one of the lines to the turbo (my car being a turbo diesel) has cracked, most likely due to the recent spate of sustained cold weather, which would at least account for the loss of power from the engine.

Unfortunately, the garage didn't have the part I needed in stock to repair it, so the car's going back in on Monday to have the line replaced and get MOT'ed (watch it EPIC FAIL!), but as if that wasn't enough to place a drain on my meagre financial resources as a student, today as I was pulling in to park my car at work, the front driver's side tyre punctured on me. Fan-bloody-tastic, hey? Though I am grateful that the tyre didn't go on the dual carriageway miles from the middle of nowhere and waited until I'd reached the car park. Still, not the best way to start the day, given that new tyres for my car cost upwards of £100 apiece.

At least I get to drive around on a full-sized replacement tyre, since the advantage of having a decent-sized car of a certain age is that you have a proper spare tyre, not a slimline one you can only do 50mph on (though with the turbo problem, I'm hard pressed to get more than 50 out of my coupé right now) - though even that is an improvement over what you get with some new cars these days - they don't put in a spare at all - all they give you is a puncture repair spray that's good for about 50 miles before it fails again.

I'm hoping that Monday will represent the last of my car-based dramas for the foreseeable future - the last thing I need would be for the cracked turbo line not to be the route of the problem. The alternative is that the particulate filter in the engine might have gone. The difference between the two is that the former costs £25 to fix and the latter costs £250... So with my natural sense of Scottish pessimism, I'm bracing myself for the worst.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bark: Oh dear

My car's dying. I was due to go on a university trip to the Natural History and Science museums in London today, but when I went to drive to the train station, the warning lights on the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree and the car's computer gave me two engine-related warning messages. If that wasn't bad enough, when I actually tried to drive it anyway, it felt like the engine had lost about 50% of its torque and power. It's a 2.2 litre HDI turbo diesel, so it's usually pretty poky, but when I put my foot down this morning almost nothing happened - there's no power from the engine in third gear and above. Not good.

I've got the car in for an emergency service tomorrow morning. I sense this one is going to be expensive...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bark: And they say that the education system isn't dumbing down

You may recall that before Christmas I had to write an essay about the place of Science in the National Curriculum. Given that my method of writing the piece took more inspiration from Hunter S. Thompson than Lev Vygotsky, I thought it was a pretty horrible piece of essay writing and thought that I'd have to do a significant re-write when I got it back.

Imagine my surprise then, when I got it back this afternoon and saw it had passed at Masters level. Admittedly, it was a borderline pass and had actually been moderated upwards from HE3 level during the marking process, but despite a few significant flaws (not least the fact it was written entirely in a single 17 hour long sitting) and having passed through the hands of no less than three separate PGCE tutors for marking, it was eventually deemed to be worthy of a Masters level pass.

One of the things we did at the beginning of the course was write down our aspirations for this year - and one of mine was to pass the PGCE at Masters level. Now this actually looks like something that's genuinely achievable. I wouldn't have been too unhappy if it had only had gotten an HE3 pass, but if an essay that I considered to be fairly inadequate for even an HE3 level pass gets a Masters pass... well. Maybe all those years writing game critiques in my spare time weren't wasted after all, and perhaps having high standards of yourself and being a tad overly self-critical is a good thing in this respect. I'll definitely be a bit better organised for my other two essay assignments (one of which is due by the end of the month). Naturally, my first priority is to just pass the course, but a Masters would be nice, especially since the Tories (who now look almost certain to win the next election, later this year) seem determined to make teaching a "brazenly elitist" and "noble" profession...

I think that politicians, particularly my own MP (and Tory Education spokesman, Michael Gove) ought to spend more time in schools, as I happen to think that teaching already is. And I also think that academic excellence and achievement is no real guide as to whether you're going to be a good teacher or not. I know plenty of genuinely brilliant people academically and intellectually who couldn't teach you how to boil an egg. Particularly in terms of Science (my own specialism), academic brilliance doesn't even remotely relate to being able to communicate ideas in a way that is understandable to children - and that is the essence of teaching. I also know people who don't have degrees that would make magnificent teachers, such as one of the curriculum support officers in my last placement school - she had all the necessary subject knowledge and a great rapport with the kids - but since she didn't have a degree, she can't take a PGCE or a GTP to train as a teacher.

It seems to me that the Tories are just talking a good talk - everyone loves politicians to talk tough, especially on education - and teachers are almost like bankers in being a demographic group everyone likes to look down upon (unless, of course, you happen to be a teacher). But I think most politicians are actually completely out of touch with reality when it comes to the real issues facing teachers in the classroom. I'd argue that the whole education system has lost sight of the real aims of education. League tables are undoubtedly the worst thing to happen in education in the last decade or so. It puts a pressure on the system to make everything driven entirely by results and minimum grades. What's the point of having a grading system from A*-G if you only want people to get A*-C? (Incidentally, I've had this same discussion about the rating of videogames, too - if you use a 1-10 rating system, then you damn well better use the whole range, not just 6-9, so as to not offend too many fanboys)

The problem of only using the highest grades when marking exams is that it inevitably prevents the very smartest people from standing out from the crowd. This is something that universities constantly complain about - indeed, some even make undergraduates take more rigorous entrance exams, since so many people get the top grades these days. Thirty years ago there wasn't such a social stigma about whether you'd gotten 9 A's or B's at O Level or not - you were just as smart as you are (or not, as the case may be) - and people could actually be properly differentiated in terms of academic ability. Now it's so easy to get an A that there are really no excuses for not getting an A*-C pass - though admittedly, part of this is due to the greater ease of access to information these days. With the advent of the internet, information and knowledge is instantly accessible and ubitquitous - it's only a lack of effort that really stops achievement - you can't use the excuse of not being able to find the information anymore, because you can download the entire sum of human knowledge in seconds on your mobile phone or computer.

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work; and I still think there is an eminently important difference. (Charles Darwin)

This is something I wholeheartedly agree with - I don't consider myself particularly brilliant intellectually, but when I want something, I work damned hard for it. The biggest problem in education these days isn't that teachers aren't good enough - sure there are some bad teachers out there, but on the whole they're the exception, rather than the rule politicians and the media would lead you to believe - the real problem is that information and knowledge is so instantly accessible through modern technology that it's not respected anymore - it's not valued. And I say this as a man who had a 10 year career in IT maintained mostly by my ability to use Google effectively, rather than any intrinsic intellectual brilliance. Well, that's not entirely true - Google doesn't tell you how to analyse and solve problems in a systematic way, and this is one of the things that my education did do a good job of teaching me. But if pupils aren't willing to engage with teaching, because they believe that technology can do all the work for them - and if they can ace all their GCSEs because they've got BBC Bitesize and exam study guides coming out of their ears and their schools just teach to the exams (so that they can maintain their league table rating), is it any wonder that universities and businesses are crying out for people with genuine talent and skills?

In a few years I think we're going to reach a bit of a critical mass in terms of pupils coming out of schools with a straight 9 grade A*-Cs across the board, with the expectation that they're going to be able to get good jobs, who will then find that they're utterly unprepared for the demands of the real world. And in today's global marketplace - where you have countries like India with more graduates than the UK has an entire workforce - whole industries (such as IT) are going to go the way of the manufacturing industries and just disappear from the UK to countries with better trained, better motivated and cheaper workforces.

You might think I'm being melodramatic, but that's the trend I see. After all, last year my own IT team got outsourced to India because they were 70% cheaper and just as well educated (leaving aside the cultural and language barriers that I think will eventually come back to bite Big Business back on its corpulent, corporate arse) than similar people they could employ within the UK.

If you're going to have politicians talk about elitism, then we've got to get rid of the stigma and fear of failure within our education system. All men may (or may not, depending upon your point of view) be created equal - but as the Romans realised, some are more equal than others (primus inter pares, etc). We need to be able to properly differentiate between the absolute elite, the good, the average and the mediocre - by statistical definition, you need to have people above and below average. The current system seeks to create a whole populace that's "above average", which is statistically impossible. What they actually want is an ever increasing standard of what constitutes "average" - that represents a true driving up of standards I can agree with - not just simply having more and more people getting A*-C grades and the actual exams getting less rigorous (Science GCSEs without any Maths in them, for example - I mean, W.T.F.?)

Unfortunately, political expedience requires that standards be seen to be increasing year on year - yet businesses (the people truly at the sharp end, outside of education and politics) keep telling us that the skills gap keeps getting wider and wider. Something has to give sooner or later, but I don't think that the Tories are the people to fix it - at least, not until it's far too late to prevent the inevitable damage to our white-collar industries and economy... As the French say, tant pis...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Byte: Scariest. Game. Ever.

About bloody time this turned up on Steam.

I played this a ridiculous amount when it came out. I never did conquer the singleplayer mode - since it's apocalyptically tough - but I had so much fun with the Stranded map in the skirmish mode that it's almost criminal. I used to just stick on the God mode, chuck myself down the shaft leading to the arena at the bottom, run like hell to the Marine outpost and then just slaughter aliens for hours on end. I remember trying that level 'honestly' a few times - very rarely did I make it to the outpost with all the good weapons in it. The first time I did make it, I was so relieved that I had gotten there intact that it took me a few seconds to realise that while the output may have sealable doors, it didn't have windows. Of course, by the time I realised this, there was an alien on the ceiling above me, about to take a great big CHOMP out of my head.

Skirmish mode was always best to play as a Marine, though. It's freaking impossible as a Predator, as you just run out of ammunition for the speargun and energy for your other weapons so quickly. Being a Predator in the singleplayer campaign, though. Damn, that's fun. You've got all the vision modes and sound effects from the film and you really feel like a huge baddass alien. Well, you would if you didn't spend most of your time cowering in a dark corner waiting for your energy to recharge all the time... That said though, playing as a Predator did blow my socks off, mainly because it was one of the first game I played where you could zoom in your view on enemies. I used to take pride in one shot kills with the speargun that would pin the heads of marines onto the wall, leaving them glowing brightly against the dull metal in the thermal vision mode. Again, it does get ridiculously hard when you start fighting aliens, basically because it throws too many enemies at you simultaneously and you run out of energy too quickly, even if you're really careful with the way you use the plasma pistol - energy management as a Predator is the biggest challenge in the game, I think.

Speaking of challenges... playing as an alien is probably one of the most disorienting experiences I've had in a videogame. It's like trying to correct a flat spin in an aeroplane with your eyes closed. The aliens are just so damn FAST, and the way you run across walls and ceilings like they were the floor is just insane. Speed is life for an alien - you can't play like in a normal FPS, because you're just so fragile and the only way for you to replenish your health is for you to make a HEAD CHOMP (Best done on scientists, for obvious reasons - though props to you if you can manage it on an alert marine or predator).

The thing I love best about Aliens vs. Predator is that it's one game, but it gives you three very different experiences. In the same way that some people argue Thief is a roleplaying game (that is, you have to act as Garrett would act to succeed in the game), AvP is similar: you have to play each role (Marine, Predator or Alien) as if you were genuinely in their head. Marines need to be ultra-paranoid because the entire world is out to make them their lunch and their only defense is their high tech array of weaponry. Predators also need to play to their strengths - ambush from stealth and try not to get outnumbered or surrounded - if they want to be assured of victory. And Aliens need to just run like hell, stay on the ceilings and walls and CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP their way to supremacy. Playing as an alien is probably the most rewarding, when you get used to the fish-eye-lens-o-vision and the ludicrous speed, but whichever role you choose, one thing is certain. This game will scare the pants off of you.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bark: Well, that's my birthday present sorted.


Bark/Byte: Okay, bored of the snow now

Yesterday I was supposed to go to Wimbledon College for a training day on post-16 teaching. Unfortunately, that plan got totally wiped out by the two inches of snow that fell onto the snow and ice still covering the car park outside my flat from last week. I made it all of 30 feet before needing to dig myself out. 'Fuck that for a game of soldiers' thinks I, and promptly went back to bed.

This morning the car park's still resembles more of an ice rink than a road, but at least the main roads are clearing up, thanks to some timely rain. It would be nice if the snow would thaw so that I can actually get out of my flat, because the cupboards are getting perilously bare.

At least I was able to buy a replacement graphics card on Monday night, along with 4GB's worth of RAM upgrade. So now my aging PC has a bit of a new lease of life. The new graphics card isn't spectacular by any means (a GeForce GTS 250 w/ 512MB), but it's better than what I originally had in there (a GeForce 8800 GTS w/320MB) and now I've got 6GB of RAM in the box rather than 2GB, Windows 7 is nips along rather nicely indeed. The loading times in Dragon Age Origins are very noticeably shorter and the game looks a bit prettier, too. I'll have to reinstall Crysis or something to give it a really good workout, but things like Mass Effect run as smooth as melted butter.


I didn't actually post what I thought about Dragon Age, now that I've actually completed it. I guess I was a little too hacked off about my graphics card dying on me.

The short version: Yeah, it's really bloody good.

The long version: Yyyyyeeeeeaaaaahhhhh,,,,, iiiiittttt'''''sssss rrrrreeeeeaaaaalllllyyyyy bbbbbllllloooooooooodddddyyyyy gggggooooooooooddddd.....

No, just kidding. Firstly, the story: It's typical BioWare - get the four MacGuffins and then have a big dust up at the end. Nothing new there, then. But at least the execution is nicely done. It may not be a new story, but it is a story well-told.

Next, the characterisation: very good indeed, overall.

Alistair is probably my favourite character in the party. He's got some great lines and I especially like the skit where he claims he was raised by dogs. My lady mage ended up being really cruel to him, by not only making him marry Queen Anora after he'd fallen in love with my mage, but also by making him sleep with Morrigan before The Big Final Battle with the archdemon so that no Warden had to sacrifice themself when killing the archdemon.

Morrigan being in the party only really made sense at that point, and while I thought it was a nice twist to the story, I think it would have been been better to have had another, more immediate reason for her joining the party than Flemeth going "there's a good girl, piss off with them". Still, Morrigan's a nice enough character and good to keep around when you're playing if only for the banter she has with Alistair and Sten while you're out and about exploring.

The Dog: utterly pointless, except as a meat shield in the final battle at the gates. Alistair doesn't take it very well if you tell him to sling his hook, though. Perhaps he really was raised by dogs...

Leliana: she's probably my favourite of the romantic interests, mainly because I am attracted to slightly crazy French women. AND IN THE GAME! Ahem. There is a great line you can have with her when she talks about her 'vision' from the Maker, which goes "Okay, I believe this is the part where I back away slowly." She takes it quite well, considering. In gameplay terms, she's also a must if you're playing a Warrior or a Mage, as otherwise you can't open chests (not that there's usually anything worthwhile in them, but still) and if you give her a load of the dual-wielding talents, she can easily out-do Alistair in terms of damage per second.

Sten: A bit dull and boring, really. First time around I left him in the cage to get eaten by Darkspawn. The second time around I wished I'd left him in the cage. The only reason to have him around is if you want to play with two NPC warriors in the party, though his snarky, flirtly banter with Morrigan is quite amusing.

Morrigan: So are you going to continue staring at me as if I am covered in eels?
Sten: Eels would be something.
Morrigan: Prudery! How charming. I expected paranoia. This is much better. I prefer to be stared at lustfully, if at all.
Sten: Keep trying, then.
Morrigan: Oh? Then shall I demonstrate an act or two? And you may tell me hot or cold?
Sten: I'll save time. Cold.
Morrigan: (Chuckles) You are a tease.

Wynne: I like Wynne. If you give her Arcane Warrior as her second class specialisation, she rocks. Arcane Warrior/Spirit Healer is *the* class combination to go for as a Mage player character as well. She's also got quite a good character backstory as well and is quite interesting to chat to in the camp. I tended to pick her over Morrigan when I wanted an extra Mage in my party to go with my PC mage, because of her healing talents. Also, Petrify + Stonefist = Instant Dead Enemy. Very fucking handy in battles with lots of mobs. One of the best spell combinations out there. I just wished it worked on those gorram Revenants.

Zevran: Just kill him, because he's fucking useless when you get him. A rogue that can't open chests? Just fuck off.

Oghren: Again, not much reason for having him around. He's no better than Sten and if you're playing a Warrior class, other than the part in Orzammar where you're forced to have him in your party, there's no real reason to have him in your party at all, other than to fill up the numbers in the secondary battle at Denerim Gate in the final showdown. I think he's mainly there to provide a bit of comic relief, particularly with his obsession about Wynne's gravity-defying bosom.

Loghain: He's the "secret" NPC you can recruit into your party as a Grey Warden after you spank him at the Landsmeet, but I didn't actually recruit him myself on the one playthrough I've completed - mainly because I didn't want to lose Alistair from the party. I may recruit him on a subsequent playthrough with a male character, just so I could annoy him by marrying his daughter, Anora.

The game does suffer from the traditionaly BioWare failing of having too many NPCs - if you're going to give us that many options, at least give us the option of having five or six characters in the party at a time when you're out in the big wide world. If Baldur's Gate III ever does get made, I will spit teeth and fire if you can't have six people in the party at a time. You need that many to have a proper balance in the party, but at least Dragon Age does one thing rather spectacularly right... Mages.

Holy crap, Dragon Age's Mages are viable from Level 1 and can genuinely spank just about anything from the get-go if you know how to play them properly and pick the right spells. It's no coincidence that my party for the final battle was made up of my Mage (Spirit Healer/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Primal spells), Morrigan (Shapeshifter/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Entropy spells) and Wynne (Spirit Healer/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Creation spells), along with Alistair as resident mage defender and meat shield. I can't imagine trying to play something like Baldur's Gate I or II with a party primarily composed of mages - you'd get cut to pieces. But in Dragon Age, mages are truly a force to reckoned with. If you don't target enemy spellcasters first in fights you generally regret it, too (or end up using gallons of health potions). Fireball is one of the most satisfying spells I've ever seen in a videogame RPG, though I wouldn't recommend using it if you've got friendly fire on. Which brings me neatly to the subject of the difficulty level - I can't really think of any reason (other than willy waving) of why you'd want to play on anything other than Easy. Easy, in my extensive experience of other BioWare RPGs, is equivalent to Normal difficulty - and since I don't really have time these days to be replaying parts of a 50+ hour epic again and again, I'm quite happy to leave the difficulty slider where it is for my subsequent playthroughs.

I think it's possibly an exaggeration to say it's the best traditional style RPG of the noughties (as some have claimed). I'd say that Knights of the Old Republic edges it - I can't see myself replaying this as much as I've replayed KotOR and some features of Dragon Age are a little retrograde if you compare them to Mass Effect, but it's certainly one of my favourite games from 2009. The fact that I actually stuck the game out to the end quite happily is one of the biggest endorsements I can give any game - since I don't actually do that for the vast majority of titles that I buy. However, I would encourage BioWare to treat their audience in a slightly more adult manner. If you're going to put sex into a game and show it, actually show it. Most women don't have sex still wearing their bra and knickers. And my toes were certainly curling when I saw my NPC's "happy face" when they were taking a roll in the hay with Leliana and Morrigan. I've not seen sex scenes that cringe-worthy since, well, the Watchmen film. Brrr. Since the esteemed Ron Jeremy (seemingly the highest authority on videogames these days) outed violent videogames as being "worse than porn" this week, the industry might as well live up to its reputation and put in some proper sex to go with its violence. If you're going to splatter your game with so much gore that it earns an 18 rating away, why shy away from putting in nipples?

I've always thought it was ludicrous that you could blow people's heads off in videogames as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but a naked nipple was the END OF THE CIVILISED WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with America retailers such as Wal-Mart refusing to stock products if they're too out there in the puritan stakes, but that's what localisation is for, right?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Byte: The Archdemon Killed My PC

Well, I'm glad that my PC decided that it would allow me to complete Dragon Age before it killed my graphics card. No sooner had I read through the post-battle blurb and tried to load one of my other characters, my GPU decided that it had had enough and croaked.

Talk about a Blight... Sigh. On the bright side, I needed an upgrade anyway.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Bark: Snowed In

I'm still stuck at home, thanks to the roads being caked in about an inch of ice - I didn't fancy writing off my car trying to get to university today. Better not to risk it and hope for better weather next week.

So in the meantime, here's a lovely satellite photo from NASA (via the BBC) of the whole of the UK dusted in snow.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bark: Winter like they used to make

I took a little wander today in the snow before lunchtime and took a few photos. By goodness, a little dusting of snow can really make things look gorgeous. And with crystal blue skies, the quality of the light was amazing - I think I got a few really nice shots.

You can see the full set here.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Bark: Snow like they used to make

Now, this is proper snow. It's been coming down since about 6pm last night and it's still going strong. There was five inches on the ground first thing this morning and we're up to about eight inches now, with no end in sight. Given the connuptions that an inch and a half of snow threw Surrey into last February, the likelihood of me taking the car out on a seventy mile round trip to university was rather low. I didn't fancy ending up like one of those poor slobs who got caught on the A3 past Hindhead last night.

I might wander out later with my camera to get some photographic evidence of the snow to stick up on my Flickr site later, because it does look pretty stunning.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Byte: It's not a skirt!

I have to add a late entry onto my list of my favourite games of 2009.

While I was spending a very pleasant Christmas in Alsace getting quite merry on some very good French wine and eating some very excellent food, I also managed to devote some time writing 16,000 words of a fantasy short-story/possible novella, spent quite obscene amounts of money buying a set of gaming headphones to replace the ones paid for by my Devils Advocate piece for PCG six or seven years ago (has it really been that long?) and devoted several afternoons to plundering dungeons in an unashamed Diablo-esque grind-a-thon.

I am, of course, talking about Torchlight. It strikes me as a bit of a cross between the much-maligned Space Siege (which was maligned not least by me) and the much-fabled ZangbandTK, the staple indie game of the long-defunct State forum for many a month. Torchlight, however, manages to be more accessible than ZangbandTK (not to mention a whole lot better looking, to boot) and about a million times more polished than Space Siege (though to be fair, the story is no less cliched and the voice acting is no less stilted, either).

However, unlike Space Siege, Torchlight is touched in places by genius, not least the ability to send off your pet back to town with a full inventory so that you don't need to stop crawling the dungeon for loot and mobs to kill. There's also a WoW influence in the loot grading system (perhaps not surprising, given that a lot of the design team are ex-Blizzard) and the shared loot chest back in the town of Torchlight itself is another stroke of inspiration, allowing you to spread out the best loot between your characters. Obviously, with my chronic alt-o-holism problem, I've played a little with all three of the available character classes. I'm not massively fond of the Destroyer (read: Tank/Warrior/Barbarian) class, but the Alchemist (read: Mage/Glass Cannon) class is quite nice, especially if you wander around with massively destructive magic wands in each hand as I've taken to doing. But my favourite character class has to be the Vanquisher (read: Hunter/Ranger), not least because my Vanquisher (inevitably called Shareth) is smoking hot. I've got her up to level 29 and she's kitted out almost entirely in Rare and Unique kit. With 350+ dps pistols dual wielded, she totally kicks goblin, dragonkin and undead bottom in the most emphatic way possible.

The art design is very Warcraft, though this isn't a problem as far as I'm concerned, given that I think WoW is has of the best aesthetic designs found in videogames well, ever. (Perhaps only the Metroid Prime games are more perfect in terms of a coherent design of a game world) Torchlight, then, is pretty, well-balanced and rather hideously compulsive. I've already gifted it via Steam to two friends of mine, so I don't think I can really give it a much better recommendation than that.