Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Byte: Friends in high places

As you know, I've started replaying World Of Warcraft recently, and dammit, I'm hooked again. It's not just so much because of the game experience, which is addictive as hell, but also for the people.

I turned Level 40 recently, and Level 41 just this morning, in my usual half-hour session before starting work, and just about everyone I know on the server has been practically falling over themselves with generousity, trying to help me get my mount as quickly as possible. Zinar, whom I've already told you about, was quick to give me a gift of nearly 20 gold pieces to the "Buy a Mount for Shareth Fund". 20 Gold, as any player of WoW will know, is quite a staggeringly large amount of money for anyone, let alone a Level 40 player. And this is typical of the generousity I've been given since I approached Level 40. I was playing last night with a Bulgarian player I've never played before in my life, and when we were rolling for loot, he wanted to give the stuff to me so I could sell it in the Auction House to help me get my mount more quickly. And we'd never even met or played together before!

As if all this wasn't astounding enough, when I logged on this morning to grind some leather for the Auction House and grab those last 5000 experience points I needed to hit Level 41, another old cohort of mine, a Level 60 Danish Hunter called Fearx, who I used to engage in massed melées outside of Auberdine with dozens of Horde last Spring said "Hi" and asked me how I was doing, whether I had my mount yet or not, etc. I told him I was just over one third of the way to having the 90 Gold necessary to buy the riding training and my mount, so he took pity on me, (having well over 1000 Gold in his rather deep pockets) and sped up the process a little bit, throwing in a Wolfshead Helm for good measure. Yes, he *GAVE* me 90 Gold. Just because helping people makes him feel good, because we go way back, because I technically needed the Gold more than he did, and at the end of the day, just because he felt like it and *could do it*. Fearx justified it by saying that a) he could afford it, and that b) since I didn't play so much as he did, it would take weeks for me to scrape up the cash - and he's right, of course. Of course, it would have been nice to have earned the money for myself, but I think this way is better than simply going to an MMORPG currency exchange and outright buying the cash. To get aid donations from other players simply because they enjoy playing with you is a great feeling in itself.

I don't know if it's just the cosmopolitan nature of the server I'm playing on, or because I just happen to have made friends with great people on it, but it's certainly as far from the cliché of people being assholes in MMORPGs as possible.

Once I bought my Striped Nightsaber, and had thanked Fearx profusely, Fearx and I playful spent a few minutes doing some synchronised mounted ballet, leaping about Darnassus enthusiastically. I was happy with my Druid's Travel Form for speed of getting across the maps, but having a mount is not only faster, plus a status symbol and super cool to look at as you tromp along majestically, too.

So, without further ado, meet the mount:

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Bark: Are they named ironically?

Well, I made it back from Milan... eventually. Since the press event was arranged at relatively short notice, we had to rely on EasyJet to fly us to and from Malpensa, and out of two flights, both managed to be late: the first by half and hour, and the flight back by an hour and a half. I understand why one of ex-managers at IBM calls them "SleazyJet" now. I certainly won't be flying with them again - not by choice, at least.

The snow on Thursday also made it a barrel of laughs on the drive down to Gatwick. The minute you get south of the Scottish border in Britain, the merest flicker of snow will illicit a reaction from most drivers as if they've suddenly been inserted into a scene from The Day After Tomorrow. Where most drivers seem happy to hurtle along at 90mph in the heaviest of rain, a single snowflake can cause abject panic, and the further south you get, the worse the driving gets... Just as well I'd planned to arrive at the airport an extra hour before check-in started, really.

I'm not going to talk about the game here, as I don't want to pre-empt the preview piece I'm writing this weekend, but it was most assuredly worth the making the trip for, even after all the travel problems. The publishing company and developers took very good care of us, and it was a real pleasure meeting Gabriele Tarquini. It was quite amusing when we went to lunch on Friday. We're in Italy, and the two other British guys (the UK PR, Dave and Martin from Jolt) ordered pizza and a lemon sorbet - the kind of dish you can get anywhere - whereas I went for real local specialities: tagliatelli with wild boar to start, a main course of Tacchino alla Milanese (a deliciously moist turkey escalope cooked in a sweet pancake-like batter, with lemon juice squeezed over the top) served with spinach wilted in butter, and a dessert of a meringue served with hot bitter chocolate sauce. Fabulous stuff.

So, my first experience of Italy was a good one, despite the rain. I'll definitely be going again, though preferably in the summer...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bark: The last thing I needed...

It's less than three hours before I drive to Gatwick to take my plane to Milan, and guess what? It's actually fucking *SNOWING*. At least it's not settling, otherwise the people on the M25 would think they're in The Day After Tomorrow, or something.

I wonder what the weather's like in Italy?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bark: The Big Smoke

A bit of a late update, but I had a fabulous weekend, this week. I'd been meaning to catch up with a lot of my friends in London sometime soon anyway, but my impending trip to Milan to preview Evolution GT provided me with even more of an excuse to hit The Big Smoke and have a big love-in at the most convenient pub (or at least the nearest one to where I was spending the day in London).

My primary (trip-related) reason for hitting London was to pick up a digital "voice recorder" from the technological cornucopia that is Tottenham Court Road (why can't they just call them "dictaphones" anymore? Presumably something to do with the Political Correctness brigade, or marketing consultants not knowing what "dictation" is. I know I'm never a man to use one word when five will do, but it seems a little perverse to me...) and also purchase an Italian phrase book from Foyles (arguably the best bookshop in the world), a little further south on Charing Cross Road.

I meet Paul at Tottenham Court Road tube around half one, and as we wander up to all the tech shops to pick up my dictaphone, guess who we meet strolling down the other way: Only Ricky Gervais, with his trademark mad rictus grin firmly in place. I pick up a lovely Olympus dictaphone, with a PC link on it, and tech shopping done, we wander down to Foyles to pick up a pocket-sized phrase book. Dan joins us briefly for a drink at the nearest Lloyd's Bar, where they're showing the bravest/craziest people in the world chucking themselves down an icy hill in the Winter Olympic Ski Jumping competition on a 30 foot wide screen.

We settle down for the afternoon as two old friends from State, Aanand and Mark, (both of whom I've not seen in well over a year) join us for beers, shits and giggles. Fleur has also travelled with me into London for the day, but rather than come with me to the Tottenham Court Road, she's met our Canadian friends, Chris and Tanya for a trip to the British Museum. Whilst the girls grab a coffee in the nearest Starbucks, Chris briefly joins us, and nearly gets chucked out of the pub in the space of five minutes, because he hasn't taken off his hat (it's a cold, cold day) and the security guys seem to have something against people wearing hats. (Something to do with not being able to get a complete picture of people on the CCTV, apparently)

I bid farewell to the guys in the pub, meet up with the Canadians and my girlfriend across the road in Borders, and we take a walk down to Chinatown, where Chris and Tanya treat me to a delicious meal at the Harbour City restaurant (my favourite one in Chinatown), as a late birthday present. For the record, their deep fried crispy duck in spicy sweet and sour sauce is one of the best things I've ever eaten. Highly recommended, if you ever have the chance to eat there.

Fleur and I walk back across town to Waterloo to take a fast train back to Woking, and I even get back home in time to watch the FA Cup highlights. Talk about a perfect day...

My preparation for the trip to Milan is now pretty much complete: because we're coming back very late on the Friday, I decided to book a parking space, since it not only worked out cheaper than public transport, but will also be a lot more likely to enable me to get home before Saturday morning. One of the other chaps on the trip, Martin (who writes for Jolt, but is also a fellow former State Alumnus) is travelling all the way down from Stockport (just outside Manchester) and will probably be spending the night at Gatwick until he can take the first train back on Saturday - poor sod.

I'm hoping to get an Empire of War review finished before I go, but in case you're having withdrawl symptoms, here's a non-fiction piece I wrote for Ian "A-B" (yes, he of "Bow, Nigger" NGJ infamy) Shanahan's marvellous website, http://www.alwaysblack.com, which for ages now I'd been threatening to write something for.

It's a piece describing the most stressful hand of Blackjack I ever had to deal in my days as a lowly-paid croupier in Sheffield. All the names have been changed to prevent blushes (and hopefully, lawsuits), but everything that occurred herein is absolutely true. Enjoy. The title, in case you were wondering, is a reference to the job of being a croupier. The punters don't call us "dealers" for nothing, you know. I'm going to be writing a few more of these pieces over the next couple of months, so keep your eyes peeled on A-B's site for them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bark: Rock on!

I've already linked you to the story about The Virtual Air Guitar created by a group of Finnish students last year, but today, I have to do it again, because this piece has a video.

Required viewing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Byte: Well, that doesn't happen every day...

My editor on Pro-G grabs me on MSN and says, "Do you fancy going to a press trip next week?"

I reply, "It depends... Where, and what's it for?"

So then he tells me.

Milan.

And it gets better. It's an all expenses paid press junket to cover racing game Evolution GT. As you know, I like my racing games. Plus I get to meet and interview Gabriele Tarquini, ex-Formula One driver and former BTCC and ETCC Touring Car Champion.

How fucking cool is that? Not bad for your first ever press trip, eh? I've never been to Italy before, either. You might say I'm rather looking forward to it. All I have to do between now and next Thursday is learn some Italian...

I still can't quite believe it. Holy shit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bark: The Most Romantic Day

Valentines Day is normally the day when I spoil my girlfriend rotten, by writing her a soppy poem in a very expensive card, cooking her a delicious but apocalyptically calorific meal of my very own recipe, and otherwise being the most sickeningly romantic man on the planet.

This year, unfortunately, circumstances beyond our control have put a dampener upon the whole day. Last night both my girlfriend and I succumbed to gastric flu, which has to go down as one of the vilest and singularly unpleasant aliments I've ever had the misfortune to have. When you're not vomiting, you're usually on the toilet, having an experience that can best be described as akin to the elevator scene in The Shining, except rather more brown.

On that wonderfully romantic image, I'll leave you to get back to my suffering...

Friday, February 10, 2006

Byte: Bowing to the inevitable

Yes, you guessed it, I re-subbed to WoW last night. I was quite surprised that it only took about an hour and a half to patch to get it up to date (though that represents a good 350MB of download), and I managed to get in a couple of hours last night to get reacquianted with the game.

As I expected when I logged in with my main character, Shareth, my guild tabard was a plain grey, showing that the character was no longer a member of a guild. To my surprise, it appeared that the guild had actually been disbanded, rather than me just being kicked out of it, as the I still had the Guild Leader and co-Leader on my Friends list, and when I checked, I saw that they were no longer members of The Rebels of Azeroth (the name of the guild, obviously).

Pleasingly, within about a minute of me logging on, my old playing partner and fellow Night Elf Druid, Zinar, whispered me and said "My god... is that really you? Do you even remember me?" He still had me on his Friends list, even though I'd not played for something like four months. It's nice to be remembered - and missed. We had a good catch up, and he talked me through the character class revamp that had happened to Druids since I last played. Blizzard had made major tweaks to the Druid class, so I had to reassign all my talent points. I had previously been specialised in Balance (damage spellcasting, as opposed to Restoration, which is healing/buffing spellcasting), but Zinar advised me to specialise in the third and final Druid class type, Feral Combat, as it was now far better than it was before.

You'll have difficulty getting me out of Cat Form now, as it's stupendously good at damage dealing. I put in a critical hit on a Level 34 mob (that's MMORPG slang for "mobile NPC" - an AI controlled enemy) last night for 499 damage, using a Ravage attack. He didn't last very long after that... The Cat Form can also track humanoids, which helps prevent you from being snuck up on in Contested Areas, and is a real boon in PvP; It's saved my pelt on a few occasions already. So you'll find me in the middle of Ironforge on Zenedar, outside the Auction House, meowing at passing players for the next couple of months, at least.

What struck me last night was how the ambience of the game comprehensively outstrips what you'll find in Auto Assault and RF Online. The game world just has so much more character, and feels lived in. The game's just so much better aesthetically, too. Not in terms of polycount - RF Online beats WoW for that - but RF Online feels quite bland and empty. The environmental textures in particular are so much weaker than those in WoW and the settlements just seem lifeless by comparison: no NPCs wandering about at all - just a few static vendors lurking in corners (and the same is true for Auto Assault). Auto Assault soundly trumps RF Online in terms of combat, and for that reason alone, may earn itself a subscription for a few months when it hits retail, but it wasn't until last night that I realised just how much I missed playing World of Warcraft.

I don't know why, but Azeroth... it just feels like *home*. Strange how you can feel that for somewhere that exists only on a computer sitting in a cold, dark server room somewhere just outside Paris, but it doesn't stop it from being true.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Byte: I'm doomed

With there being absolutely nothing out there of interest worth playing at the moment, at least on the formats I own, and nothing interesting coming out for at least another month (barring Psychonauts), I'm giving serious thought to re-subbing to World of Warcraft and ressurrecting my characters on Zenedar.

I've been playing quite a bit of the RF Online Beta, and I have to confess, the more I play it, the less I like it. It's simply grind, grind, grind, and that's no fun at all. I'm told by people also on the Beta that it gets much better once you're of a level to participate in the massed PvP combat, but I'm not sure if I can really be bothered grinding my way up through another 15 levels or more to get to the interesting bits. In my opinion, for an MMORPG to work, you need to disguise the level grind (or at least make it fun) - which is what World of Warcraft and Auto Assault do so well.

Auto Assault isn't due until around mid-April, and I quite fancy playing an MMORPG in the meantime. I am quite enjoying Guild Wars, but I haven't found anyone to really play it with yet, and soloing in an MMORPG is only enjoyable up to a point. Which brings me neatly back to WoW. Unfortunately, having not played the game in nearly four months, and having had a hard drive wipe between then and now means that not only do I have to reinstall from scratch, I've got about a year's worth of patches to catch up on. Which isn't going to be pretty. It'll need about three days just to install the patches. Plus I've undoubtedly been kicked out of my guild by now for not playing...

I have been trying to stave off reinstalling WoW, by picking up a few games in the January sales. I've mentioned GTR before, which is absolutely joyous. Hard as nails and as unforgiving as a wronged wife to play, but looks great and is really rewarding when you nail that hot lap around Donington or Spa. I also picked up SWAT 4, on the advice of the redoubtable DAT500, but it steadfastly refuses to work on my PC. It just gives me a wonderfully black screen and crashes everytime I try to run it, and no updating of drivers or game patching makes the blindest bit of difference at all. So if anyone wants to relieve me of my copy and free up some space in my ever more crowded games box, feel free to email me at lord[underscore]thrawn[underscore]of[underscore]thrawn[at]hotmail[dot]com with your address. First come, first served. Don't expect a swift delivery, though. I'm notoriously bad at getting things into the post...

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Byte: It's a conspiracy, I tells ya!

Given the inordinate, nay, scandalous amount of time it has taken to reach our shores, I was heartened today to hear reports that the uniformly critically acclaimed Psychonauts has finally been given a UK release date for this Friday, and that people were even saying that they'd seen dummy boxes of the game on the shelves in their local high street retailers.

Imagine my horror, then, when I did a quick search for the PC version of Psychonauts on Play.com and was confronted with this:



I hope it's not a bad omen...

Bark: Grinding noses

Apologies for being rather quiet this week, but since I've just worked a normal five-day week within the space of three days, I think you'll understand why I've not been able to blog lately.

By way of compensation, here's an interesting link that just shows why we should all be emigrating to Sweden. And not just so that we bask in the greatness of my friend Oskar, who will undoubtedly get more name-checks from me in the coming weeks. By way of a teaser as to why that should be the case, I leave you with this...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Bark: The Frozen Squirrel Menace

You should all know by now that I can't resist a good squirrel story, but this one has to be one of the most bizarre.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Byte: In the key of G15

I managed to convince my girlfriend to buy me a Logitech G15 Gaming Keyboard for my birthday, and it turned up (from Komplett via ParcelForce) this afternoon.

First impressions: It's HUGE. It *barely* fits in the keyboard tray of my computer desk. I mean with millimetres to spare on either side. It's a stunning piece of kit, though. Whilst the LCD screen may be a total gimmick, whilst you're in Windows, it has a screensaver that alternately shows you your RAM and CPU occupancy and the date, time plus whether you've got any e-mail messages or not. The CPU occupancy gauge alone should prove handy to see whenever an application has crashed, anyway...

What I *really* wanted it for was the key backlighting, which is a very sexy neon blue, and doesn't disappoint. I can't wait to try it out tonight. The build quality of the keyboard is first rate, and the keystrokes are a lot quieter than my old Microsoft IntelliType Pro: just the thing for late night gaming sessions when you don't want to disturb the missus! The macro recording software looks pretty decent too - you can set up profiles for just about any game you have installed. I've been recording macros for the special attacks in Jedi Academy, which should give my young apprentice Philippe a rude surprise, if I ever get around to playing him online! It's not cheating, it's maximising the use of freely available technology! Well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it...

Byte: Rising Force

Not feeling so well today - the bronchitis I've had for the last week is steadfastly refusing to just fuck off and die - so as a consequence I spent most of yesterday in bed. Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to "have a nap" because I was feeling ropy after dropping Fleur off to school after all...

One thing that cheered me up yesterday, though, was getting a DVD packed with RF Online Beta code. This makes it the second MMORPG Beta I've wangled a place on this year, the first, of course, being World of Wheelcraft. Sorry, Auto Assault. The good thing is that RF Online is only a couple of weeks from release now, well into the second stage Beta, so they should have gotten rid of most of the bugs by now, giving me much more of an idea of what the finished product will be like.

RF Online, if you haven't seen much about it yet, is a Final Fantasy-style, MMOG, with lashings of sci-fi and fantasy themes, and like Auto Assault, is set around an epic struggle for dominance between three factions: the Cora, the Bellato (cue millions of "Bellato sucks!" jokes) and the Accretians; the sexy fantasy ones with the skimpy knickers, the butch ones with mech-tastic penile enhancing war machines, and the ruthless robotic terminator-a-likes, respectively.

Having played both RF Online and Auto Assault now, the jury's out as to which one will get my MMOG subscription this year. RF Online is nicely polished and has an innovative way of assigning quests (they're automatically given to you as you level - none of this seeking out quest-givers lark) and you can level nice and quickly (I got up to Level 9 in an evening's play), but the quests themselves lack imagination and the game seems based almost exclusively around grinding. The world is vibrant and the enemy design is quite good, but there are a couple of interface issues, particularly a needlessly obscure way of showing the level of mobs. Why can't they just use numbers? It would have saved me half a dozen respawns last night... The PvP (or RvR - Race vs Race, as they call it in the manual) combat element may spice things up a bit, but I can't see it truly rivalling World of Warcraft.

Auto Assault, on the other hand, is just that little bit different. The GTA-esque freedom, the much faster-paced, more involving combat and sprawling scale make the grinding element much more palatable, and not all the quests are of the "destroy 20 generic enemy of this level" variety. It still has a veritable mountain of bugs to be squashed, and is a far more raw around the edges than WoW or RF Online, but also has the three faction PvP dynamic, which should promise to make things interesting in the long term.

They're both good in their own particular way (if I were to be thoroughly disreputable and review the Beta code, I'd place them both around the 8/10 mark - but I don't review Beta code, so forget I said that), and I'd have to reserve judgment until I've played both final products, but instinctively, I'm leaning towards Auto Assault. I just wish they'd leave their Beta servers open longer...