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.



ZOMG.

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.

WARNING: HUUUUUUGE SPOILERS FOR DRAGON AGE FOLLOW!

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.