Friday, January 27, 2006

Bark: The Age of Terrorism

As I enter my fourth decade with grace and dignity (yeah, right), I look at the news, to try and gain an insight as to what my 30's are going to have in store for me. So, what's the biggest story, this fine, sunny day? (other than this evening's merciful conclusion of "Celebrity" Big Brother... move on, move on - nothing to see here...)

Cheerily, it's the horrified media reaction to Hamas being elected into the government of Palestine. A delicious irony that, Hamas, a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel, should be getting down to the finer details of forming a new Palestinian government today, since the 27th of January also happens to be Holocaust Memorial Day here in the UK.

If you go to the UN's website and have a look at the history of so-called "Palestinian problem", you will actually see that this whole thing is Britain's fault. By denying Palestine sovereignty after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War One, and (in a very British manner) trying to force Jews to live together harmoniously with the Palestinians, because they felt a bit sorry for them (the Jews) not having a country to call "home", rather naively thinking that the Palestinians would just budge up and make room for them, because it was terrible what happened with that business with the Nazi camps, wasn't it, chaps? So when the Palestinians started kicking up a fuss about people settling in Palestine (land, you remember, which is of significant religious and spiritual significance to the Arabs as well), we Brits did the decent thing. By which I mean we took the long view, took the hard choices... shrugged our collective shoulders, washed our hands of it, and gave the problem to the UN to sort out. How noble. Doesn't that make you proud to be British?

And it's been pretty much downhill ever since. Especially since the US ensured that after the partitioning of Palestine in 1947 by the UN, Israel would be the dominant power in the region by pouring money and arms into it, allowing Israel to occupy the rest of Palestine, and ensure that Israel would never be censured by the UN Security Council, given that the US systematically vetoed every resolution that would have done so. (Barring, rather oddly, 1967's Resolution 242, the one that demands that Israel gives back the lands it has occupied - i.e. the one Israel has been studiously in defiance of for the last 40 years, with tacit American approval)

If you search through the UN site, (and I'd give yourself at least a couple of days, by the way) you will find that the UN still considers the Israeli occupation of Palestine illegal. Yet it's absolutely powerless to do anything about it, because the US makes sure that any resolution that would give the balance of power (and land) back to the Palestinians doesn't get anywhere.

Given this historical context, which is all too often forgotten in today's fast-paced tag-'em-and-bag-'em news media, perhaps it shouldn't be quite so surprising that the Palestinians have voted a group like Hamas into power. When you have two-faced American presidents extolling the values of democracy, liberty and freedom on one hand, while denouncing as terrorists people denied those very values by a government propped up by American money and arms in an illegal occupation of lands condemned by international law for nearly FORTY YEARS on the other... it can hardly be a surprise that the Palestinians will use what little power they have, the power of their vote, to make such a profound statement.

The reaction so far from the US and Israeli governments has been classic: "We will not deal with terrorists." Talk about making a rod for your own back. You gave them the power to vote, guys. Deal with the consequences. As the Secretary General of the Arab League said yesterday; "The US can't promote democracy but then reject the results of this democracy."

Democracy can't be a flag of convenience: if people have truly voted for a party that's you don't like, but it's what they *want*, tough shit. You don't have the right to dictate whether any particular government is distasteful to your sensibilities or not. You simply have to deal with (or live with) whoever the people elect - i.e. just like most of the civilised world has to put up with a moron in the White House until 2008. Whinging about it doesn't solve anything. Now you can see how the bats released by the "War on Terror" are coming home to roost. "Terrorism" has always been a matter of definition, and like any semantic argument, it's impossible for everyone to agree to the same terms. Members of Hamas don't consider themselves to be terrorists. They consider themselves to be resistance fighters. They use suicide bombs because, unlike Israel, Palestine doesn't have a standing army bought and trained by the United States. The Israeli's don't consider using military bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes to be terrorism. But if you were one of those people evicted from their homes moments before it was crushed to rubble, don't you think you'd have a different point of view?

The Palestinians have, by electing Hamas, given the world a fascinating problem. They've legitimized "terrorism" (though I've said for a long time now that people wouldn't be terrorists if terrorism didn't work as a practical means for gaining political power) - or at least they've made an association between terrorism and democracy that the powers on high would have preferred to leave distinct and separate. The leaders of Hamas are not just terrorists now, they're politicians. Israel has the charming policy of assassinating members of terrorist organisations in general, and members of the Hamas leadership in particular. Now Israel's in a bit of a pickle. It can't be seen to negotiate with "terrorists", but now that Hamas are forming the legitimate Palestinian government, they can hardly knock over the cars of Hamas's leadership with missiles from assault helicopters anymore, either. I predict that we're either going to see an immediate and long-term frosting of relations, or that the US and Israel will try to undermine the results of the Palestinian elections. Either that, or there'll be all out war on the streets of Jerusalem.

In declaring his "War on Terror", George W. Bush committed a fatal conceit. He effectively said; "A terrorist is who we choose to call a terrorist, as since we're the only remaining world superpower, it's up to us to define the new morality for the world." Because Might makes Right, doesn't it George? You can't make war for peace and democracy. It's utterly nonsensical; an oxymoron on a par with "Military Intelligence". A democracy imposed on people has no value, because it wasn't fought for by the people it will represent. It's said that "Democracy is a terrible form of government. But it's the best we have.", and that may be true, but that's not always relevant. The question is; "Is democracy what people *want*?" Looking at the mess we've left Afghanistan and Iraq in, can we be truly certain that the answer is "Yes"?

Terrorism, like it or not, is here to stay. You can no more win a "War on Terror" than you can win a war on the Sun setting (or not setting, if you live in Antarctica). Terrorism is born out of inequality, a failure to listen, and a failure to tolerate our differences; Things that cannot be addressed by installing puppet democracies in the hope that the shining beacon of liberty and freedom will magically turn everyone into happy little consumers spending dollars in American franchise stores. Go down to your friendly W'al'mart today, for all your camel fodder needs!

As the world continues to lurch further towards extremes, don't be surprised if you find that Hamas's victory sets a precedent for other elections around the world, and that the line between "terrorist" and "politician" becomes increasingly blurred. Many people already say that most dangerous terrorist in the world today isn't Usama Bin Laden, but George W. Bush. And they have a point, you know... how can anyone so utterly absolutist in such a grey-scaled world as ours *not* be dangerous? I suppose it just boils down to a matter of perspective; your point of view.

I think we need a new political mantra for the 21st Century. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Politicians need to swallow their "we will not negotiate with terrorists" pride and drag themselves (kicking and screaming, if necessary) to the table, because making war with terrorists doesn't seem to be making our world any safer. I know it's a radical concept, and please try to stay with me here, but perhaps making peace, promoting empathy and a little understanding might work better instead. No, that's madness. Just blow their brains out and bomb their villages to smithereens. That'll solve *everything*. (And who said getting old made you cynical?)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Byte: Does my bum look big in this avatar?

Yesterday evening, I'm trying to valiantly stave off another impending migraine by playing a little Guild Wars. I haven't made that much progress in the game yet, obviously, since I've only had it about a week, but I've grown rather attached to my Ranger/Elementalist, Karrina Lightwood (Karrina being one of my generic names for female MMOG characters):



Fleur, wandering by, exclaims; "WHO'S THAT?", presumably because she thinks I must be cybering with her or something. I patiently explain to her that Karrina in no way constitutes a threat to our relationship, because she's just a polygonal avatar in a virtual world, hosted on a computer somewhere in Europe. I also explain that she's a Ranger, my favourite archetypal D&D class. My girlfriend, distinctly unimpressed, takes a closer look, and comments; "Oh, she's got flowers in her hair! That's so sweet!"

Thinking the storm has passed, I revert the camera back to its default view, and start running to my next quest waypoint, when suddenly I hear Fleur say, in the most barbed tones possible; "NICE ARSE, TOO!", as if to imply that I'm somehow unhappy with her arse, and that I have to somehow resort to consorting with computer games in order to satisfy some perverse arse-watching fetish. Well, let's knock that *straight* on the head. My girlfriend has a particularly fine arse, and I'll meet anyone who says otherwise outside. And I'll be waiting with my friend Baseball Bat. Got it?

Anyway. Minutes later, we get a phone call from our friend Florence (who we're visiting this weekend, to mark the occasion of my 30th birthday; though if you're looking for existential angst about getting older, you're not going to find it here. I find getting older beats BEING DEAD, so I won't be complaining about it anytime soon. Come back when I'm 60), whereupon Fleur immediately recounts what I'm doing on the computer (and with whom - i.e. Karrina). I briefly introduced Florence to World of Warcraft last year, so she knows what MMORPGs are about. So what's the first question Florence instantly asks? None other than; "Does she have a nice arse?"

So either French women have such insecurity about their arses that they feel intrinsically threatened by anyone who doesn't buy their knickers at Marks and Sparks (with added tummy-flattening panels) or videogames designers make female characters with unrealistically nice arses.



There's the evidence. I leave you to form your own judgement...

[Edit: As Richard has just pointed out to me on MSN, it could have been worse. I could have been playing Lineage II...]

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bark: Being ill sucks ass

There's nothing like three solid days of constant migraine-level headaches, coupled with a throat infection that makes the back of your mouth feel like it's been covered in toxic slime, PLUS a chesty cough so bad it seems like your lungs are making a determined escape attempt via the medium of your mouth to *really* put you in a good mood... and as if that weren't bad enough, the bulb in my lava lamp has just gone.

WHY WON'T THIS MISERY EVER END?

Still, on the up-side, you do get to make very bold fashion statements, like cowering next to the radiator for warmth, fully clothed, wearing a scarf and a kimono to boot. I just need a Fedora, and the look will be complete. Anyone know where I can get one? And if they sell lava lamp bulbs, that'd be great, too.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bark: Eleventh Hour

I don't watch much TV, but the appearance of Patrick Stewart in a programme that's not Star Trek is more than enough for me to put down my mouse and keyboard and lounge infront of the glowing brainsucker device for the best part of an evening.

Stewart plays Professor Hood, a government science consultant, who's on a personal mission to protect the interests of scientific advancement and protect the public from bad science. Last night's episode was about a rogue cloner, and it's well-written, genuinely interesting stuff. One of my favourite scenes was Hood disgustedly watching a shampoo advert, throwing an old sandwich at the TV, and loudly proclaiming "Bollocks!" in a broad Yorkshire accent when "the science bit" rubbed him just a little bit too far the wrong way.

Patrick Stewart's one of those actors you can watch in just about anything, and can't fail to be impressed (well, maybe barring Dune). He's just got so much charisma and authority as an actor, you can even believe that he's an English-accented 25th Century Frenchman. Okay, maybe that's overstating it a little too far... but he's a bit like Johnny Depp (though with less hair, obviously): you can cast him in practically *anything* and he'll be great.

Able support is provided by Ashley Jensen (who you may have seen in Extras); she plays a no-nonsense Special Branch policeman assigned to be Hood's bodyguard. Refreshingly, her character's full of sarcasm, wit and delicious put-downs.

It's quite a short series (only 4 episodes, the first of which was last night), but it's definitely worth watching, if only for being a series with an emphasis more on the intellectual than the thrills and spills.

In other news, and a plug without prejudice, The Escapist Magazine has an EVE Online promotion this issue, allowing you to download the game client free, and check the game out for 14 days, without committing to a subscription. So, if you've been meaning to check out EVE Online for years, but never quite got around to it, here's your chance.

The magazine itself is a good read, too (for the videogames-inclined).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Byte: Muh?

There's something wrong with my brain. I went into town to buy a Rally game on PC to complement the awesome GTR and further use my new gamepad with, and came out of GAME with a copy of Guild Wars instead. No, I don't understand quite how that one works, either.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Byte: Graaaaaggghhh!

A friend of mine, Kaspar, has introduced me to a very strange little browser-based online RPG, called Urban Dead. It's little more than a text-based multi-user-dungeon (MUD) with a Night Of The Living Dead theme, but what makes it interesting is that every zombie you see in the game is another player.

As a zombie, you can't do that much, except try to kill people and go "Graaaaaggghhh!" a lot. If you choose to play as one of the non-zombie classes, it's slightly easier to gain experience points, but should you be unlucky enough to run out of Action Points (which are given back to you at the rate of one every half-hour) in a zombie-infested area, there's a distinct likelihood that you'll get killed, at which point you'll join the zombie horde.

The fact that it's action point-based, rather than real-time or turn-based means that it's never going to take up *too* much of your time, meaning that it's far more suitable for little blasts of work avoidance than the addictiveness of Zookeeper or Bilbana. If you do check it out, my advice would be to try the Fireman class, as having an axe beats having a gun, since an axe never runs out of ammunition...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bark: It's good to squawk

Fantastic story on BBC News today. What do you do if you suspect your partner of cheating on you? Simple, buy an African Grey parrot.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Byte: World of Wheelcraft

Crazy traffic this morning. So bad, in fact, I was having Auto Assault flashbacks and wishing I had a radioactive-goo-spraying turret mounted on my roof. The "Weekend in the Wastelands" didn't start out too promisingly: on Saturday, I couldn't log in at all, and on Sunday, when I could finally get on the Beta server, I was having horrible performance and instability problems, crashing regularly, every ten minutes or so.

After a quick read on the Crash Issues thread in the Auto Assault forums, I discovered that it was a problem with having High Quality sounds enabled. For some reason Audigy cards don't seem to like them, so they've got a bit of tweaking to do yet. Other than that, I didn't find any obvious bugs, barring one quest that simply didn't work for me, no matter how many bloody times I jumped my car over the crawler nests...

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. For those of you who don't know much about Auto Assault yet, here are the basics.

There are three opposing factions (it seems three is the new two in MMORPGs this year - RF Online also has three opposing factions instead of the traditional two), the Humans, Mutants and Biomeks. Each race has their own specific skillset, and you can also devote skill points to class skills. There are four character classes (these are the Biomek class names, but they're essentially the same thing, regardless of race): Terminator (Combat specialist), Constructor (Engineer/Tech specialist), Mastermind (wizard/spellcasting type) and Agent (Special Ops/sneaky type).

I tried out a Biomek Agent (called RogerRodger, in homage to the "Roger. Huh?" recurring joke in Airplane, so if you see me, be sure to say "Hi"), and got him up to Level 6 in about five or six hours play, which gave me a look-in on the skills/powers tree. Agents get small, light cars which are fast and maneouvrable, but can only carry small weapons, which don't do much outright damage, but do have fast re-fire rates, meaning that you can make like a Locust in Mechwarrior; circling quickly around enemies too close and too fast for them to get shots in at you, whilst nibbling away at them with your relatively puny weapons. Agents also have the Invisibility power (in which you need to invest skill points) that you can use to make hit-and-run attacks against more powerful enemies without getting your chassis shot off, or simply to help make a clean escape.

Combat's furious and involving: despite the statistical basis (all the weapons still have DPS - "Damage Per Second" - ratings), it genuinely feels like you're dishing out damage in real-time, as rather than just clicking an attack button WoW-style and letting the stats sort it out, you need to fire your weapons in the way you would in an offline action game. You have three weapon mounts: Fixed front and rear facing hardpoints, plus a roof-mounted turret, which you can rotate using the mouse, allowing you to drive independently of aiming, much like the tanks in UT2004. The turret can track onto targets if you click on an enemy, or you can just leave it in free-aim mode, so that you can hit targets on the fly without targetting them first, which is handy when you get into huge vehicle vs infantry melées.

You can pick up trophy parts to customise the look of your car; pipes, vents and tracks, for example; fitting them at a body shop in one of the towns. They don't do anything other than look cool, but you can pick up items than can be used to enhance your car. Other than weapons, the performance of cars can be altered by fitting them with new tyres (say if you want to maximise your grip on ice or sand), or a new power plant or armour plating. Parts are level-limited to ensure the game balance, so that you don't get Level 2 characters driving around with armour that gives them a +100 bonus to their defence.

The handling of the cars is good and appears to adhere to the known laws of Physics, but there are still a few clipping problems, meaning that you can occasionally get your car stuck. Thankfully, since most of the game environment is destructible, you can usually shoot your way out of trouble. Graphically, the game isn't the best looking MMORPG out there, but the weapon and power effects are pretty enough. Some of the car designs are quite cool as well. I reckon this one has quite a bit of staying power.

I'd like to find out how things evolve as you get up to a higher level, and I didn't get to do any PvP, but I'm guessing that it's going to be quite interesting. I'm going to play it more tonight, take some screenshots and do a full preview for Pro-G, so keep your eyes peeled this week for that.

I'm also going to be taking a look at War World this week, which, if it plays half as good as it looks, could be great.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Byte: Status Report

A couple of things to report today: Firstly, I should have my review of Mario Kart DS go up on Pro-G in the next day or two. Sublime stuff, even if I do have to travel five miles to the nearest wi-fi enabled pub to be able to play it online.

Secondly, after reading the "Why don't they remake..." article in the latest edition of gamesTM about Ant Attack, it appears that the very promising Blitz3D remake of Ant Attack I discovered by chance when I was still running State is dead and buried. Modesty's not updated her blog in nearly a year, and her website URL's up for renewal, which is disappointing. I still have a very early set of Alpha code lurking around on my laptop's hard drive; I'd really been looking forward to this, as Modesty had some really nice ideas of how to improve it over the original Speccy version. Ah, well. At least I still have the Alpha code to remember you by!

Finally, after the relative success of downloading Pirates of the Sword Coast for Neverwinter Nights, after reinstalling Half-Life 2 yesterday, I was suddenly all nostalgic to play Half-Life (1) again. Unfortunately, my Half-Life CD has gone AWOL somewhere, and I can't find the bloody thing, so I thought I'd download Half-Life: Source, since it's just as cheap to download it as buying it in the shops, plus you get the game reworked in the Source Engine. It doesn't make that much difference cosmetically (it's on a par with the original HL: Blueshift remaster), except for the lovely water effects and all the post-OpenGL particle and lighting effects. However, it's still an incredible game to play, especially when you notice those little differences in gameplay the port to the Source engine has made. They're subtle, but occasionally striking, most notably with the physics. The first time it really caught me off guard was towards the tail end of Unforeseen Consequences, when you have to use several package crates suspended from crane cables to traverse from one balcony to another.

Even in the original, this was a section that had me reaching for the quicksave, but I simply wasn't prepared for what happened when I leapt onto the first crate. The momentum from my jump transferred itself to the crate and it started to swing. A *lot*. After a few seconds, it was enough to start making me feel a little bit seasick, which rather complicated the next series of jumps. Especially since your momentum can sometimes make you slide when you land, making you slip off the top of the crate to a plummetting doom. There are other improvements, too. The Physics of the shotgun seems improved, and the flashlight is much better than in the original engine. You can actually see further than three feet with it in air vents, which is nice. The AI of the Barneys and Scientists is a lot better than in the original, as well. At one point in Office Complex I had two Barneys and four scientists following me around, which was rather amusing. I'm just up to Blast Pit, which is probably my least favourite level of the lot - because of that bloody tentacle creature. Brrr. Still, after having not played it for a couple of years, it's a damn good game even now. Can't wait to get my hands on the Egon Gun and Tau Cannon again. It'll be like seeing old friends.

I have to admit, after a bit of a dodgy start, I am starting to quite like Steam, and the whole internet game distribution thing in general. When you have as many games as I do (something over 200 at this point) it's nice to not have to faff around getting out CDs and the like. So, could digital distribution be the way of the future? Provided broadband keeps getting faster, and developers let us have their titles for a discount as opposed to retail, let's hope so...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Byte: Just like the buses...

...you wait five years to get onto a Beta test, and then two Beta test keys come along at once. My editor at Pro-G has just MSN'ed me to tell me that NCSoft have just sent him a full Beta key (as compared to the one I had that was valid just for the "Weekend in the Wastelands" semi-open test session this weekend. And he says he can probably get me on the RF Online Beta test as well. Hurrah!

Byte: Assault and Battery

Woohoo! I've managed to wangle a place on the Auto Assault beta for the weekend. It's essentially a Massively Multiplayer cross between Mad Max and Demolition Derby, so should be fun. I've had my eye on it for a while, and is a candidate for the MMOG I might subscribe to this year (the other being the mech-tastic RF Online). It's just as well that the servers don't open until 7pm on Friday, because the game client is 2657MB, which should keep my wireless router honest for a few hours...

I'll give you my thoughts on Monday.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Byte: The Twelve Month Rule

Even though Windows is a heck of a lot friendlier than it used to be, I still hate it, for one reason: The Twelve Month Rule.

It basically states that no matter how well you maintain your PC, after approximately twelve short months, give or take a month or two, the operating system (due to its innate shitness) will get its knickers so much in a twist that you'll be forced to take a digital hammer to your hard drive, wipe it clean and reinstall everything from scratch. I've been meaning to do it now for a couple of months, because my games rig has been throwing the odd wobbler since the anniversary of the release of Half-Life 2 (as long time readers will know, I got my PC and Half-Life 2 on the very same joyous day).

Today proved the final straw when Norton (in its infinite wisdom) decided that it was going to mysteriously delete the two key dll files that it needs to run, and threw constant "Ahhhh! Help meeeeeee!" pop-ups at me for about ten minutes, killing my wireless network along the way. I don't mind the Internet Security Suite throwing a wobbler, but taking down my internet access as well. That's just going too far. So I back up all my essential files to CD, and out comes the box with all the driver disks and my copy of XP Pro.

Ten minutes later, and we're in the middle of a full format and OS reinstall. That'll learn you, Norton, ya bastard! So now I get to look forward to an evening of reinstalling all my games. Hurrah!

Byte: Rant Time

Okay, I'm mildly pissed off. Not just at the fact that there's fuck all due to be released that I'm interested in until March, videogame-wise, but because the one game I have bought this year, GTR (a FIA GT racing simulation, which makes Forza look a bit stupid and has a killer online mode), I can't even bloody play, because my gamepad's up the spout.

If I ever told you in the past about how good the Saitek P2500 rumble pads are, I hereby retract the recommendation. Don't touch the fuckers with a barge pole. Why? Basically, because although they're a decent enough dual-shock clone pad, they have one fatal flaw.

After a while, the input range of the analogue sticks starts to decay: in my case the left stick doesn't have full range of movement on its right and forward axes, and the right stick doesn't have full range of movement on its right and backward axes. And thanks to a wonderful design flaw that Saitek's support team won't even acknowledge as being a problem, there isn't a setting in the driver software that allows you to manually calibrate the sticks. Meaning that once the input ranges start to decay, the pad is fucked. Permanently. Meaning that if you want to set up the pad for a driving game, using the left hand stick for steering and the other stick for throttle and brake, you're left with a partially stuck on throttle, and steering that pulls to one side or the other. AND THERE'S BUGGER ALL YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.

Except throw away the pad and buy a new one. Which I've just done. Yet again, I've taken advantage of Play.com's extraordinarily low prices and got myself a Windows XP compatible Xbox 360 USB pad, which not only has the wonderful analogue triggers that are piss perfect for driving games, but will also double as an extra pad, should I ever pick up a 360 (in the unlikely event that it ever gets some decent games beyond PGR3 and the inevitable Halo sequel - oooh, cynical!).

In other news, I've been watching some of the speed runs on the videogame Speed Demos Archive again. I have to confess that I don't really understand the whole ethos behind completing a game as quickly as possible. I suppose it's a little bit like the motivation to climb Mount Everest ("Because it's there!") and some of the madskillz on show in some of the shooter games in particular are incredible, but I can't see myself ever trying it. Perhaps just because I'm too shit.

The Morrowind one is hilarious - he spends practically all of the time brewing potions, and then just goes straight for the end boss and kills him before he finishes his "You can't kill me! I'm a God!" speech. Ah well. There's a game I never need to buy now...

Arguably the most impressive is the Baldur's Gate speed run. An hour and a quarter in a "single segment" (i.e. without reloads to trim down the time). I'm going to have to replay Baldur's Gate as a Fighter-Thief multi-class, as I don't really play either of the BG games that much as multi-classed player characters. That said, the closest I ever got to completing Baldur's Gate (getting horribly killed in the final battle with Sarevok) was with a Fighter-Druid, so multi-classing must have its benefits...

I quite fancy another go at Baldur's Gate, actually. It should keep me occupied until something decent comes along at any rate.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Byte: Yarrrr!

With the PC, Xbox and DS schedules practically barren until March, I've been working over a few old favourites in the last week. I started replaying Neverwinter Nights just before I went to France on holiday, mainly to build up an Epic character to play Hordes of the Underdark, when Dan suggested to me on Messenger that I play Pirates Of The Sword Coast, a Premium module expansion by Bioware for Neverwinter Nights. I'd been somewhat reticent towards buying the NWN Premium modules in the past, but just before Christmas I picked up the retail pack of Kingmaker, Shadowguard and Witch's Wake for a tenner, which are all pretty good, and after having Pirates recommended to me, I thought I'd take a chance on it, since another $10 on my credit card isn't really going to make much of a difference at this point...

As you might expect, it's a tale of piracy, treachery and talking parrot-ery on the high seas of the Faerunian Sword Coast. I won't go into plot spoilers, but suffice to say it's Umberlee-vably entertaining stuff. (Get it? Umberlee? The Queen of the Deeps? An RPG about pirates? Oh, please yourselves...) Not only do you get to buckle your swash throughout, there are several wonderful changes of pace, including being marooned on a troglodyte-infested desert island (A Crusoe-em-up, if you will), plus you get to do all sorts of piratey things, including hunting for buried treasure with tattered maps. I got through it in two solid evening's play (6-8 hours worth), though I didn't do everything, and the game's practically begging for replays, thanks to the multiple endings, so it's pretty good value. The dialogue's great, a couple of the characters are fantastic (including the aforementioned talking parrot) and it's about PIRATES. It could only be cooler if it had ninjas too. Oh, and maybe giant stompy robots. And jetpacks. Okay, forget I said anything...

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bark/Byte: The Inaugural Bark And Byte Awards of Excellence and Mediocrity 2005

The Byte Award for Most Pleasant Surprise:
Jade Empire Bioware

The Byte Award for Game Most Likely To Eat Your Life:
World Of Warcraft Blizzard
(Honourable Mention: Civilisation 4 Firaxis)

The Byte Award for Worst Instance Of Publisher Interference In Game Development:
Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords Obsidian

The Byte Award for Crappest Game Ending:
Halo 2 Bungie
(Dishonourable Mention: Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords Obsidian)

The Byte Award for That's Bizarre, But I Like It:
Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly - Director's Cut Tecmo

The Byte Award for If I Play This Shit Any Longer I'm Going to Go Insane:
MetalHeart: Replicants Rampage So shit I'm not going to give the developers the publicity

The Byte Award for Best Star Wars Game:
LEGO Star Wars Giant

The Byte Award for Sensory Overload:
Meteos Q Entertainment

The Byte Award for Best Game I Didn't Buy:
Darwinia Introversion

The Byte Award for Nice Engine, Shame About the Game:
Silent Hunter III Ubisoft

The Byte Award for Most Drop Dead Gorgeous:
X3: Reunion Egosoft

The Byte Award for Best Freeware Since ZangbandTK:
DoomRL Kornel Kisielewicz (Gesundheit!)

The Bark Award for Most Sickening Media Hypocrisy:
The Coverage of the the 7/7 London Bombings

The Bark Award for Best Media Sideshow:
The Conservative Party

The Bark Award for Best Invention:
The Virtual Air Guitar
(Honourable Mention: The Cellular Squirrel)

The Bark Award for Most Damnable Creature:
The common mosquito

The Bark Award for Stupidest Litigation:
The Russian Astrologer suing NASA for upsetting the balance of the universe

The Bark Award for Best Misappropriation of Government Property:
The Army Pilot who used a Lynx helicopter to deliver a pizza to his girlfriend

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bark: No, I'm not dead. Don't look so disappointed.

Well, I'm back from my Christmas holidays: Twelve days in the IT wilderness, with nary a videogame nor internet connection in sight. My original plan to take my Nintendo DS was royally scuppered by my girlfriend hiding our European Travel Adaptor, so that I couldn't recharge the console, so I made do with taking my poker set instead (which raised a couple of eyebrows at Basel airport when it went through the X-ray machine). I got to play a little Texas Hold 'em with Nicolas, the boyfriend of one of my girlfriend's sisters, which was nice, even though he was a bit of a newbie (i.e. I trounced him royally - just as well we weren't playing for real money, since some dickhead took the wing mirror off his 307 on Boxing Day morning, just for kicks, AND he got a speeding fine on the same day).

We did a little shopping in the Christmas Markets of Mulhouse and Strasbourg, drank plenty of vin chaud, saw some friends, and I spent a lot of time reading, getting through two Heinleins and 600 pages of The Seven Basic Plots, which I told you about last month. It's an absolutely astonishing book - I literally couldn't put it down for the best part of a week, and it's taught me a lot about storytelling method, which I plan to put to use this year by knocking off a couple of short stories. One (which I've started already) will be a Fantasy tale set in the AD&D Forgotten Realms (see Baldur's Gate for details), and a second will be a sci-fi short set in a Heinlein/Kim Stanley Robinson-style post-apocalyptic "future history" of my own fiendish conception.

One of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to actually finish a short story and not lose interest halfway through (as I usually do); my others being to drink less; lose about two stone in weight; and finally, make a concerted effort to learn more French so that I can string together an actual, grammatically correct sentence and engage my girlfriend's parents in conversation without needed to call on her as an interpreter. We've decided to have "French days" and "English days" as part of our week - Monday, Thursday and Saturday being the days where we aim to speak as much French as possible, plus practice verb conjugation in the car on the way to work (my real weak point), with the rest of the week speaking English or French as we choose. You may even see the odd blog entry written in French by the end of the year... who knows?

While we were in France we did get a little snow: a couple of inches the day after Boxing Day, which lurked around until New Year's Eve, and a few nights were bitterly cold. I think it went down to -15oC at one point. Chilling! The most fun I had was driving home ten kilometres, in the rain, on roads coated with half an inch of ice at around 2am in a nine year old Fiat Punto (without snow tyres), including driving down a hill in Altkirch that's about 1 in 3. Still, at least at 2am there's nothing left on the roads to hit...

I quite like driving in snow/ice conditions, actually. In an "ohmygodI'mgoingtocackmypants" kind of way. I don't get to drive on ice very often, and it's a nice test of your car control skill, because it's completely unlike driving on any other type of surface. If you drive on ice the same way you drive normally, you're just asking to end up in a ditch. Forget about using the brakes, because you'll just lock the wheels and you'll slide off the road, aquaplaning on a tiny sliver of melted water between the ice and the tyre's contact patch. If you want to slow down, you instead give yourself plenty of lead time and use the gears to limit the wheel speed. (Example: driving down the 1 in 3 hill, I kept it in first all the way, to prevent the car getting away from me) Driving on ice is also the best time to see (and use) the effects of torque steer (assuming you have a front-wheel drive car), as you can use the torque from the engine to correct slides instead of using the steering wheel. The other mistake people make when driving on snow and ice is forgetting that it's not a good idea to use first gear. Wheelspin isn't desireable when driving on ice. Obvious, really, but so many people trying to get up steep hills seem to forget it when you add ice to the equation. It's like locking your wheels with your brakes - once you get those wheels spinning, say goodbye to Mr Traction...
Still, fun as driving in the snow might be, I'm glad I don't have to do it every day.

I suppose I should put up the inaugural Bark and Byte Awards for 2005, plus my hot tips for the best games of 2006, but not now. I have to get my nose back to that grindstone, and I have about seventy e-mails still to read. Gosh, I missed work... (Like a hole in the head...)