Sunday, July 30, 2006

Bark: Bad Timing

Why, oh why, did the National Film Theatre have to put on their Michael Mann season on the one week I'm out of the bloody country?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Byte: In the company of heroes

I've just got back from the THQ/Relic press trip to Normandy for Company of Heroes. I'll be posting a full travelogue and hands-on for Pro-G in the next couple of days, but for now, I leave you with this, to whet your appetite.

Cliché has it that a picture tells a thousand words, but in this case, only one word.

AWESOMENESS.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Bark: Personal Space Invaders

We slept with the window open last night, because it was so oppressively hot. You might think this is a normal thing to do, but when you live in a ground floor flat, it's not something you do lightly. Besides, the bedroom window hadn't been opened in roughly two or three years, ever since the management company had repainted the window frames. It took me ten minutes with a kitchen knife to prize away enough of the paint sealing the window to its frame so that we could get it open.

I had a typically late Friday night, scribbling down a few short story ideas in my notebook, going to bed around 3am. It was still very humid, so I didn't even bother with the covers, and eventually got to sleep about half an hour later, glad that there was a breeze coming through the window - albeit a warm one.

At precisely 5am, the breeze wasn't the only thing that had come through the window. I snapped upright in bed, having been woken by a strange sound and some movement off to my left, near the bedroom door. We had a visitor. Still a bit groggy, because I hadn't had much sleep, it took me a few seconds to make out precisely what had invaded my bedroom. A plaintive mewing reassured me that the trespasser wasn't after the silverware. It was a cat. A gorgeous long-haired black cat, with a patch of white fur on the front of its neck. It meowed again, and I proffered my hand to show I was friendly. He started purring almost immediately as I gently stroked him around the neck and ears. "Where did you come from, hmmm?" More purring was the only reply.

My girlfriend was also awake by this point, and I told her "I think we left the window open a little bit too far." The cat meowed again, obviously realising its mistake and indicating that it really should be outside. How it had got through the window and past the net curtain without disturbing us on the bed, or knocking over all the knick-knacks (glass ones, I might add!) on the window sill, I'll never know. I was just glad he wasn't a burgular. "Well, it could be worse, at least he didn't wake us up by jumping on my chest."

There was more purring as I stroked the cat, reflecting on how to get him out of the house. He was too big to pick up and put out the window again, and I was too tired to want to risk doing that anyway. The last thing I wanted was the cat to struggle and knock over one of the vases on the window sill onto the bed. Sleeping on broken glass is not likely to be particularly restful. "Put him out the front door." My girlfriend suggested and I hauled myself wearily to my feet. The cat followed me eagerly, almost like an enthusiastic puppy to the front door, his tail high and straight in the air. He was slightly less enthusiastic when I opened the door, and he saw it was raining (a thunderstorm brewing, much like the one rumbling in the distance now) - but a little nudge sent him hopping out the door. I went back to bed, closing the window a notch, hoping that he would be the night's sole visitor...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bark: We'll all melt like ice-cream in the sun!

It's 8:40 in the morning, and it's 24 degrees Celcius outside. And they're expecting it to hit 37 (nearly 100 degrees Farenheit) this afternoon. I think I'm going to put another dozen ice cube bags in the freezer...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Byte: Fringe Benefits

One thing I'd forgotten about with Windows 95 was that rather than the godawful Windows Media Player, you actually had a proper CD player program. The reason this is significant to me is because Grand Theft Auto and and GTA: London both had CD ISO format music soundtracks that play all sorts of havoc with Media Player and refuse to rip to MP3 properly. However, now I've got a Win95 virtual machine up and running, not only can I play the games again (at something approximating a manageable frame rate), I can listen to the whole soundtracks again, rather than the rips I'd made that had some tracks bizarrely cut off in the middle.

Result! Finding out about Virtual PC 2004 coming out as freeware has pretty much made my month. Cheers, Rich.

Getting back to the games themselves, I'd long since abandoned hope of ever being able to play GTA: London again, so it's a little like a long-lost friend suddenly turning up on your doorstep. GTA: London almost rivals Vice City as my favourite GTA game, if only for the classier insults that the Londonites hurl at you... "Simpleton!", "Twat!" and my favourite of all... "Bar-stard-slag!" And if you listen to the police radio carefully, you'll also hear a report of a "rogue film crew" outside Sun Hill Police Station (a sly reference to The Bill).

Plus the range of cars is so much better in GTA: London than in GTA. The Myni, the Locust, the James Bomb and the truly Ferocious GTO... Being able to blow up Harrods is a bonus, as well. Fantastic game, though sadly under-rated on the whole. I'd love to see a spiritual remake, rather than another USA-based GTA game. Come on Rockstar... what are you waiting for?

Byte: We're gonna party like it's Nineteen-Ninety...er...Seven?

Well, things didn't quite go according to plan with the Windows ME virtual machine I talked about in my last post. It turns out that my WinME disk was hardware-locked to only work with PCs made from the same manufacturer as the PC I got it with. Which was a bit of a bummer, but nothing the mighty eBay couldn't handle.

This morning a still-sealed Windows 95 OEM disk and manual dropped through my letterbox (£5.99 well spent), prompting much rejoicing. I decided to plump for Windows 95 rather than 98 or ME firstly because virtually all of my Win98-era games work on XP, and secondly, because it's a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to pick up these days. You can take the man out of Scotland, but you can't take the Scotland out of the man. I do love a bargain...

I spent a feverish hour at lunch setting up the virtual machine, having to bypass most of the hardware detection in the install procedure to get it working. I may just be getting sentimental in my old age, but I did have a few pangs of nostalgia when I was sitting through the setup screens, remembering when I installed it for the first time, at 5am in the morning on my old Pentium 75MHz, just after a shift at the casino in Sheffield. 32MB of RAM, 300MB hard drives, 4MB S3 video cards... those were the days...

So now I can play just about every PC game in my collection again. I sense a few long nights on UFO: Enemy Unknown coming along...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Byte: Dark Force Rising

The ever-redoubtable Richard alerted me yesterday to something really rather cool. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to freely release Virtual PC 2004. Whoopie-doo, you might think. A free bit of software that I'll never use! Hurrah! But no, this actually has gaming potential. Retro-potential, that is. The beauty of a virtual machine, rather than an emulator is that, well, they actually fucking work. Hark! What is that sound breaking over yonder? Ah! 'Tis the death knell of DOSBox, methinks!

Not that I have anything against DOSBox, you understand. Other than it being slow and desperately unfriendly to try and set up and use, that is. I never got it working properly - even on an Athlon 64 3500+ it still ran like a three-legged dog after it had been shot in two of its good legs. And the sound juddering... Horrific. But the principle is fine. DOS emulation - great, but it would be nice if it didn't take Deep Thought from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to run it.

Of course, the one downside (if you can really call it that) is that you need to have the original install disks of the operating system you want to run under the VM. In the case of MS-DOS, this also means that you have to go through the whole rigmarole of pissing about with config.sys and autoexec.bat settings for your drivers, plus all that wonderful EMM386.sys higher memory crap in order to some things to run, but it's still quicker and easier than using DOSBox. Especially when you've written as many config.sys menus as I have.

Other than a little trouble setting up the mouse support (quickly resolved by reading the online help, incredibly) I've now got a DOS 6.22 virtual machine up and running on my games rig, which is awesome, because I've been wanting to trawl out a few old DOS games, like Silent Hunter (the original and best!), Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries (I prefer Mechwarrior 2, but I've lent it to a friend) and Dark Forces - the first Star Wars FPS, which was the forerunner of the Jedi Knight games. I was positively addicted to Dark Forces when I was at university and playing it again at lunch (fullscreen on a 19" TFT, albeit in stonking 320x240 resolution) was nostalg-tastic! I could still remember where all the secret areas were and everything. I can't wait to work my way through the game again to the Coruscant level, with the face-off with Boba Fett at the end. Only 14 levels, but it was an amazing game at the time, and stands up today surprisingly well. I can't seem to get Transport Tycoon to work, unfortunately. It's a bummer, because it's one of my all-time favourite management games.

I'm also probably going to install a Windows ME virtual machine as well, to cover all the Windows 95 games that don't work under XP, so I should have a fabulous time getting reacquianted with a few classics. Just as well, too, given that there's sod all out there that I want to play at the moment, and the shine's beginning to wear off Oblivion, too... Maybe I'm just getting old and grumpy, but I'm more excited by the prospect of dusting off a few retro games than playing a new release like Prey or Hellgate: London. The heatwave must have broken my brain. Or something.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bark: I can't believe this isn't a storm in a teacup

I can't believe the whole Zidane World Cup headbutt thing is still rumbling on in the press. Okay, so he's arguably the greatest football player of the last 20 years, and he got sent off for headbutting someone in his last game. Of course, doing that on the pitch is inexcusable, but what about the things Materazzi said to him that provoked him into doing it? If he did call Zidane a "son of a terrorist whore", as some lipreading experts claim, or racially abused him, that's surely just as badly out of order as the headbutt. And do you believe Materazzi when he says that he "doesn't know what a terrorist is"? Talk about media spin. I know footballers usually aren't too bright, but that's a bit much. Then again, he was stupid enough to sign for Everton in the past, so maybe not...

Still, in time-honoured, truly tasteless internet tradition, someone with too much time on their hands has created a Flash game to help you recreate the moment. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Byte: It's what the people want.

Monkey Island supremo Ron Gilbert lamenting on how videogame publishers don't seem to be interested in storytelling anymore. (Were they ever? - Cynical Ed)

Abject apologies to Warren Ellis for stealing one of his memes, but...


Click...

'Splode!

It's what the people want.

THE FOOLS.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bark: Grilio Kart

I would have typed up this account of my weekend yesterday, had it not been for a mild case of heat-induced death... at least it's good to know I'm not the only one suffering.

My weekend was a good one, with The Gril Man popping out of the Big Smoke to stay with us for some assorted japes and scrapes. Poor old Dan had a bad case of the sniffles (thanks to some rather over-enthusiastic air conditioning at Bioware in Canada) and got through about two packs of kitchen roll (he's going to love me for saying that) and several litres of Lemsip - not quite the beverage I'd planned on us drinking, but never mind... more beer for me!

The main event of the weekend was popping down to the newly opened go-karting track in Camberley. I hadn't been karting in about 15 years, and neither Dan nor my girlfriend had ever tried it before. The main motivation for going was to introduce Fleur to the joys of driving. She recently decided that she'd quite like to learn to drive, so before turning her loose on Surrey's streets, I thought it would be best to initiate her in a relatively safe environment. She didn't take all that well to driving a Mini Cooper S around Florence on PGR2, so I thought karting would be a nice, more practical compromise. Besides, karting is helluva lot of fun, and since I discovered there was a track so conveniently local, I had to try it out at least once.

We were joined on-track by a group of half-a-dozen teenage girls, who unfortunately wouldn't have known the difference between a racing line and a line of coke. Consequently, I got baulked on nearly all of my laps, because they thought that the shortest route around a corner was the quickest one. So despite being a good 5-10 seconds quicker than them around the track on a clear lap, finding enough room to get by without barging them into the barriers was easier said than done. So I know what it feels like being a Formula One driver now...

It wasn't all bad, though - also joining us was a charming young lad (of around 12) from South Africa (and no, that's not a contradiction in terms - for those of you remembering Spitting Image's song; I have indeed met several nice South Africans) who was obviously a bit of a karting veteran: he even beat my fastest lap time in the second session. It would have been interesting if we could have gone head-to-head on a clear track, though - I reckon we would have been quite evenly matched.

I could tell that given a clear track I would have been able to knock huge chunks out of my lap-time though, because I didn't even powerslide once. I didn't really have the room to, with all the other cars on track. The circuit's got quite a good layout, so I'm definitely going to go back at some point. It's just a shame that it's such an expensive hobby. £27 for 30 minutes of track-time is pretty steep going. I'd love to do a team-enduro event, but there the problem is finding enough other people to do it with you. I'll have to try and set up a works do, and see if I can get my project to pay for it... The only downside (other than the ever-expanding hole in my wallet) is that I appear to have been spoiled by power-steering. None of us could believe quite how hard it was getting those karts to go around corners. I didn't remember it being that hard when my brother and I used to go karting at Trentham Gardens in Stoke as kids. My biceps are still aching. Good exercise indeed, but a tad sweaty in 30 degrees of heat when you're wearing a full race suit, gloves and helmet...

After our escapades on the track, Dan and I also broke out the Xbox for a bit of multiplayer. We co-op'ed the last few levels of Halo 2 - the ending of which is the very definition of anti-climax, just as everyone told me it was - plus, being inspired by Wimbledon season, we also played a bit of Top Spin. Unfortunately, it appears that Dan isn't much of a fan of racing games, so we couldn't take to the Nurburgring on Forza Motorsport to put that recent on-track experience to full use...

Next time, we're going to see if we can have an excursion to Buckmore Park, the best outdoor karting track in the country. Maybe after that (and making him play a session of GTR) I'll be able to convince Gril that playing racing games isn't a complete waste of time, and that things have moved on since Outrun...