Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bark: The season of goodwill?

This news story has a sense of seeming inevitability about it. Pakistan's been a civil war waiting to happen since Benazir Bhutto returned from exile in Dubai. Yet another "victory" for American foreign policy, I'm afraid. I've not been a fan of Musharraf since he jumped so quickly into bed with Dubya after the 9/11 attacks, and he's probably done more to undermine democracy in Pakistan over the last five years than the Taleban and Al Qaida combined. No doubt there'll be conspiracies flying around that Musharraf sactioned the attack, but to be fair, I think there are enough extremists in Pakistan to have carried out the attack without government help. Though in a sense, I suppose the government did play it's part: it's the US-friendly policies of the Musharraf government since the overthrow of the Taleban in Afghanistan that has created such an atmosphere of unrest in Pakistan in the first place.

I had a lot of respect for Benazir Bhutto, despite the accusations of corruption... from what I saw (dating back to her first stint as Prime Minister when she paid a visit to Maggie Thatcher in the early '90s) she always conducted herself with a lot of dignity and, I believe, integrity. So her death is a great loss, if not entirely unexpected.

So what now for Pakistan? Dark times, I fear. But this is what happens when you ally yourself with a military dictator for politically expedient purposes. It's just a shame that it's never the people that form the expedient alliance that end up ulitmately paying the price...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Bark: Sunset

Christmas Sunset 2007

We might not have had snow for Christmas Day, but Nature made a work of art with the sunset tonight.

Bark/Byte: A Gamey Christmas

This Christmas I'm a thirty-something Kevin McAllister. If that name rings a vague bell, that's because it's what Macaulay Culkin is called in Home Alone. Though at least I have more beer and better games to play than he did. (But sadly, no snow)

I think this is actually the first Christmas I've ever spent on my own (the neighbour's cat doesn't count, even though I'm cat-sitting and Bram is very cuddly) and I have to say, it's not such a bad experience. Of course, there's bugger all on TV (except my hero, James May, doing very nasty things to girls' toys this evening) and I have no-one to get into a vicious argument with over a Trivial Pursuit board, but that's probably a good thing. To quote Robert De Niro from my favourite film ever, "I am alone. I am not lonely." I'll probably be watching that later, as I've not seen it yet on my new TV. and it's a great opportunity to really annoy any neighbours who are still around by watching the post-bank heist firefight at maximum volume.

I'm writing this as I'm waiting for my Christmas dinner to cook. Since I'm on my own, I didn't think there was much point in buying a turkey - much as though I like it, I don't want to be eating it for the next three weeks. So I went deer hunting at my local butcher, and got some venison instead; I thought I might as well eat game if I'm going to spend Christmas playing them... get a bit of a theme going. I'm doing it with ramiro red peppers, red onion and button mushrooms as a bit of a casserole, having marinaded the venison first in red wine, thyme and garlic. I'm using the marinade as the cooking liquor and slow cooking it over a low heat for about an hour - coincidentally just how long it takes to roast potatoes. Funny, that. Oh, and it smells absolutely divine. (I've still got 15 minutes cooking time to go at this point) Of course, I couldn't have this just on its own, I've got the goose fat on the go, and I'm roasting far too many potatoes with some carrots and parsnips, with a few sprigs of thyme to help flavour the fat. Goose fat may, in fact, be the most evil substance known to Man, but by golly, it makes great roast potatoes. I'm also steaming some brussel sprouts, because what is Christmas without sprouts? So at least I'm eating well and not existing solely on toasted bacon sandwiches with HP sauce. Though I am sorely tempted to try, believe me. I've got three packs of of the stuff to get through between now and the New Year.

After dinner, I'm probably going to try and put a couple of levels on my new Blood Elf Hunter. Sad, I know, but I genuinely don't have anything better to do. I have to say that I'm finding that tricky patch between Level 20 and Level 30 far easier playing as a Horde than I ever did with my Alliance characters on Zenedar. I've got three alts stalled at level 24 on Zenedar, but my Blood Elf Hunter has already stormed to Level 23 and shows no signs of slowing down. I only rolled a new character because the guys from videogamer.com have finally jumped on the WoW bandwagon (They got on it slower than I did! I can't believe it! Finally! I'm a trend-setter!) and started off on what's commonly thought to be the PvP server most games industry types play WoW on in the UK. I've even seen a guild called "Gank me, I'm famous".

Last night was spent saving the galaxy on Star Wars: Supremacy; for my money easily the most underrated Star Wars game ever made. I find it's seductive pull curious, because you could hardly say it's an exciting game. There's just something about taking a 20 sector galaxy (each sector having ten planetary systems) and applying your strategy to conquer it. I think I'm getting a bit too good at Supremacy now - I won as the Rebels on Medium difficulty (the Star Destroyer difficulty setting at the main menu screen) in just 620 days - the Imperials only having half a dozen systems to my eighty by the time I'd taken Coruscant. I think the key is to try and knobble the enemies diplomats as early in the game as you can, and that allows you to spam sectors with guerillas to try and provoke uprisings, because without diplomats, their only recourse is to use huge amounts of troops to restore order - the production of which reduces the amount of resources they have to build ships. This is a great strategy for the Rebellion in particular, because they don't get a decent starting fleet to begin with, and need longer to build ships capable of fending off a Star Destroyer. I should play again now as the Empire, because I like the thought of having the Emperor and Darth Vader at my beck and call... it's really not good for my megalomania complex.

Anyway. I've got venison to eat and there's beer to be drunk. Have a good Christmas, everyone. I know I will...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bark: Whoops!

You would have thought that if you're going to work with industrial quantities of cyanide, the last thing you would do is fall into a vat of the stuff. At first, I thought he must have been in some evil genius's secret lair, but it appears that you use potassium cyanide in electroplating.

Still, on the bright side, at least the guy can look forward to a new life as a supervillain.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bark: The spirit of Christmas

My dual-monitor workstation at the office is now adorned by a string of Royal Purple tinsel. Wooo.

Bark: Move over T-Rex

The title of meanest carnivore on the planet has now been awarded to the brilliantly named Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis.

Randomly, the journalist who wrote this story, Helen Briggs, was a co-student in the French evening class that I went to about four years ago in Camberley. Nice lady.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bark: You could have fooled me

Human evolution is speeding up, apparently.

Yeah, right.

Bark: On the subject of mindless gore

Following on from my previous post, I think this deserves its own blog entry.

This might rival Plan 9 From Outer Space as the most gloriously rubbish film ever made. Cheers to Mark for pointing this one out to me last night.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Byte: Appeal

I'm still not going to buy it.

Byte: A Top 10 with a difference

Comrade Oskar starts his countdown of his Top 10 favourite games of 2007. Whereas I'm content to do this kind of thing using the medium of words alone, Oskar is not nearly so conventional and boring. No...

Oskar is conveying his Top 10 games using the medium of Action Man figures playing Charades. In their pants.

Behold!



Stark. Raving. Genius. I can't wait to see the rest.

Byte: Heresy grows from idleness

After just four levels of Squad Command, I felt inspired to reinstall Dawn of War and played through the first three levels of the campaign last night. As most of you will already know, I'm not a huge fan of RTS games. Dawn of War is one of the few notable exceptions to this rule (the others being Haegemonia: Legions of Iron, Star Wars: Supremacy and Company of Heroes). It's quite hard to explain why I like Dawn of War so much. I was never even a big Warhammer 40,000 fan when I was a kid. A lot of my friends were major Warhammer 40,000 fanboys, but I only ever owned one figure: a Reaver Titan, which I was crestfallen to learn wasn't even one of the most powerful Titans... Serves me right for buying on looks, rather than reading up on the stats. But I digress...

Logically, I shouldn't like Dawn of War. It has all the same repetitive base building at the start of each mission that your average RTS has, but there's just something about the way it handles resources and territory that makes it all tolerable. Also, the game is viscerally spectacular. I love watching Dreadnoughts tromp into battle, tossing aside broken Orks and letting loose with autocannons. It's just so great to watch, especially when you've got four squads of Space Marines, fully tooled up with rocket launchers, blowing the crap out of an Ork encampment. Well, it would appear that I was enjoying things far too much, as I spent all night dreaming I was a Space Marine Brother-Captain, slaughtering Orks with a plasma pistol and Power Sword...

This can't be a good sign.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Byte: Give him a squad, see what he can do

I wasn't quite right in my previous post, there was a game out this week that I was interested in, and picked up yesterday.

Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command, for the DS. People only seem to have been reviewing the PSP version so far, with no reviews at all for the DS version having hit Metacritic as yet. Normally, you could take this as being a bad sign for the quality of the game (especially with some of the reviews for the PSP version being hardly stellar), but in this case, I think you can put it down more to the publisher trying to boost sales on the PSP. Whenever you get a game coming out on more than one format, more often than not, the review copies that go out will be on the Sony formats, not the Nintendo ones. I guess this used to be down to Sony historically having the larger market share, but now (with the DS and the Wii absolutely trouncing Sony's current generation of hardware in terms of sales) it kind of makes more sense to put out review copies for the Sony formats, rather than the Nintendo ones, because it's more likely to aid sales. Or maybe in this specific case, they don't expect Squad Command to have much of an impact on the kiddie-friendly DS market, so don't want to justify the cost of sending out the review copies for a small return. They may be right - but it still leaves the people who are interested in the title in the position of needing to take a complete shot in the dark, should they hand over their £30 for the game.

So, in the interests of public service (and because I'm a sucker for turn-based strategy), I bought the game in HMV yesterday and played through the opening few levels last night.

First impressions aren't bad, actually. Obviously, being on the DS means that it's never going to rival the PSP version for looks, but it's graphically quite effective. Units are recognisably scouts or Chaos marines and considering the small resolution of the DS screen, the weapons are modelled quite well.

The interface is pretty good, and the touch screen is used well, allowing you to directly select units, weapons, stance and targetting options without having fiddle about through menus or push loads of buttons. Less impressive, however, is the 3D camera. You can move it around a bit to try and help you look around corners, but the movement range is limited and feels a little like an afterthought. It really falls between two stools: it's neither a fully effective fixed camera (the dithering of objects to make them transparent when one of your units goes behind them isn't great, and also doesn't apply to enemy units, allowing them to hide behind walls, so you can't target them effectively, even if they're within line of sight of the unit) nor is it a fully-functional moveable 3D camera, which would allow you not to have to use the ineffective object dithering at all. It's an annoyance rather than a full-blown impediment to playing the game, because at least with the DS version, you have full-visibility of the tactical map on the second screen at all times, and all enemy units within line of sight are fully marked, but it does make you wish that they'd spent a little bit of extra money sorting out the camera to make it fully rotateable. Or if they couldn't have done that, would adding the ability to do a Sims-style wall drop (where you still see a footprint to show you that an object is there, but you can see behind the object) really have killed them? It seems like they picked the worst of all possible solutions.

A slightly bigger problem is that the game doesn't track units as they move or fire, which can be particularly annoying during the enemy turn, because if you don't happen to be looking at the right part of the map, you have absolutely no clue what's going on. It also is highly annoying when you're doing long distance sniper shots, as you can't track the fire from source to destination, so if it goes awry and hits some scenery (or, Emperor forbid, one of your squad) somewhere, you're left pretty much clueless as to where or why. This is a feature UFO: Enemy Unknown grasped as being absolutely necessary nearly 15 years ago, so for Squad Command not to do it is nigh-on unforgiveable. Really, I mean, that's -2 off the score right there...

There are a lot of things to like, though. Firstly, it's Warhammer 40,000. Secondly, it's turn-based. I know a lot of people would not agree with me on that point, but they're fools, frankly. Thirdly, you're not just restricted to standard aimed, snap or auto shots, with fixed levels of accuracy. The game allows you to take as many of your action points a turn as you dare to make a shot. The more action points you spend, the more accurate the shot is. This is seriously awesome, especially when you start getting sniper rifles. You can just set up end-of-turn overwatch ambushes and snipe cultists from halfway across the map. It's a feature that can make you want to fight battles very defensively, but I suspect that later in the game, when the difficulty starts ramping up, this is something you're going to want to do anyway, as you're restricted to just six units, and you can't reinforce your squad. Which seems pretty mean, when you're typically outnumbered by about three to one. Another feature I liked is that your action points are only consumed by movement or firing. Switching from primary to secondary weapons or turning doesn't eat up any of your action points for the turn, which is a welcome tweak, as there was nothing worse in UFO/X-Com than needing to make a soldier turn to be able to take a shot at an enemy, only to end up being a time unit short of being able to fire.

One thing I've not been able to try yet is the multiplayer, but it sounds promising. You can play head-to-head with a single cart, or go for all-out eight-way multiplayer, on small, medium or large maps. I reckon a single eight-way turn-based multiplayer game on a large map would set you up for the entire evening. I'll have to try and get my DS working with the wireless to try it out (as you can play online).

Overall then, based on the first three levels, Squad Command is a game I could describe as being worthy: not the exceptional piece of gamecraft it could (perhaps should) have been with this license, but it hardly blows chunks, either. I may get around to posting a full review when I finish the single-player campaign, for a more definitive verdict. But yeah... s'okay.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Byte: The Pre-Christmas Lull

Starting (briefly) off-topic, for the first time in literally years, I managed to go a whole month without using my overdraft (unlike last month, when I just dipped into it). I had a margin of nearly £50 to spare, and that was despite me spending £500 on a new TV and nearly £80 on a new battery for the car. So hurrah for that. It might be a little trickier next month, as I've got to get the car MOT'ed and I've got to pay my flat's maintenance charge (though I'm not sure why I bother with that - they never mow the lawn and the place is still under about three feet of rotting leaves). But anyway, something to celebrate, and now I can really start making headway on getting rid of the four-figure balance on my credit card. If all goes to plan, that should have disappeared by this time next year. That'll be a nice Christmas present to myself, certainly.

Well, now we're into December, I can finally think about Christmas as a topic. With all the big games (Crysis, UT3, Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, Mass Effect, etc) having been released already, it seems that the traditional post-Christmas games release lull has actually come before Christmas this year, as there's absolutely, officially, sod all coming out worth buying between now and March.

So now would seem to be a good point to do a recap and go over what were my favourite games of the year, and let you know what I'll be playing to fill the gap between now and Spore (which will, I heartily predict, be the greatest thing in the history of civilisation). So these are my games of the year, in no particular order.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - PC
It still amazes me that I'm in the minority on this one. That is, the minority of players who bought this game that actually completed it. According to Valve, only 44% of players have actually completed the game, which is kind of mind boggling when you consider how good the game is. Though even that paltry percentage appears to be an improvement over Episode 1. Anyway. This is my personal favourite FPS of the year, despite a rocky opening couple of hours, the rest is absolutely superb, with the final defensive battle around the silo being the stand out set piece of the year.

Puzzle Quest - DS
Or, as it might be called, Zeldakeeper. A manic cross between old school Zelda RPGs and Zookeeper, Puzzle Quest is apocalyptically addictive, and a great way to kill time while you're in the waiting room of a doctor's surgery.

Peggle - PC
This game, quite rightly, has generated a quite spectacular amount of hype and praise over the course of the year. I disagree with Yahtzee in that the game is definitely more about skill than luck, especially when you get to the more advanced challenges - you can't clear a whole level down to every last peg using only one ball by luck alone, believe me. A grasp of physics and a good sense of timing will get you much further than luck alone. Again, like Zeldakeeper, sorry... Puzzle Quest, it's spectacularly compulsive stuff, and is also as cheap as chips, if you buy it via Steam.

Metroid Prime Pinball - DS
No, really. This is quite easily one of my favourite games of the year. It's the rumble pack that really makes this game. Considering that the rumble pack is absolutely tiny, it really has quite a kick, and the way it's used with to give the kickers and other table features a tactile feel is absolutely brilliant. The DS itself is also perfectly suited to a pinball game (using the shoulder buttons as flippers and the touch screen to "nudge" the table), the Metroid window-dressing is just the icing on the cake. And what tasty icing it is as well. It's Parma Violet flavoured and wrapped around marzipan. Good enough to eat until you get sick.

Race Driver: Create & Race - DS
Yet another DS game. I haven't blogged about this one before, but I picked this up on the strength of Eurogamer's positive review, and it hasn't disappointed. Okay, so the AI isn't really up to much and the graphics aren't all that good, but the real fun from a game like this is being able to create your own tracks and then comprehensively thrash the AI around it. It's also another game that makes good use of the DS rumble pack. It's not really essential to the experience, but it does add an extra little layer to the game.

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade - PC
It's hard to think of another game I've spent more time with this year. That in itself is as big a compliment that I can pay a game. That said, after sinking well over three hundred hours into it this year, my sub is currently frozen, and I can't really see myself re-subbing until the next expansion comes out. At which point I will disappear back to Azeroth, and you'll probably never see me again...

Excite Truck - Wii
It's not big, it's not clever, but boy, it is FUN. It's games like this that were the reason why I bought a Wii in the first place. It's not about the graphics, it's not even about new styles of gameplay, it's about the way you interact with the game. Excite Truck is just so simple and so intuitive, it's hard not to get carried away. Other than Wii Sports, this is my most played Wii game by far.

The Witcher - PC
This was probably my most pleasant surprise of the year. One of the select few games that can be filed under "Games Iain has actually completed", and something's got to be pretty special to join that club, believe me. It took me seven years to get around to finishing Deus Ex, while I completed this in just a couple of weeks. The only game I finished quicker this year was Episode 2. I understand that CD Projekt have been a rather disappointed with the UK reviews of the game - though I have seen from my traffic stats that someone from their office in Warsaw has been reading what I've said about the game (presumably because I seem to be the only UK-based gaming journalist who liked it), so I'd like to reiterate at this point that The Witcher is my personal favourite RPG of the year. The combat's more interactive and interesting than the RPG standard "choose an attack, click and wait for them to thrash it out", the story starts quickly and really picks up the pace in the last couple of acts, characterisation is nice and strong and it's got a genuinely intriguing twist in the tail: I won't give out spoilers, but the closing cutscene really sets up an interesting premise for a sequel. A lot of people seem to have got hung up on the sex and the fact that the script was trimmed down during translation, but I didn't find that it came between me and my enjoyment of the game. There's a lot to be said for a fresh, original game setting, and technically, The Witcher makes Neverwinter Nights 2 (and its expansion pack) look like an ugly, buggy mess. Which it is. Let me put it this way: despite all giddy levels of character customisation and different class combinations you can knock out in NWN2, I'd rather replay The Witcher. 'Nuff said.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - Wii
Ah, Samus, how I love you so. Especially when I can see the reflections of your eyes when I switch to the scanning visor. The Metroid Prime series is one of the most aesthetically perfect franchises ever made, and with the razor-sharp control scheme on the Wii, this is just such a wondrous game to play.

Team Fortress 2 - PC
The only online shooter worth playing. Pixar meets The Dirty Dozen. Great styling, great balancing, and fun in spades. And rockets. And miniguns. And flamethrowers.

Games that should have been in the above list, but aren't (for various reasons):

BioShock - PC
This just failed to grab my attention. It does a lot of things really well, but the whole Vita Chamber mechanic (ironically) killed my enthusiasm for playing the game. It's telling that the recent patch allows you to turn them off, but this would simply make the game even more frustrating to play, thanks to the huge difficulty spikes that you get around Big Daddy encounters. It all smacks of trying to rebalance the game after the fact. This is one game where I really do agree with pretty much everything Yahtzee had to say...

Unreal Tournament 3 - PC
Sexy? Yes. Shiny? Yes. Awesome new vehicles? Yes. Nice new maps? Yes. As good as UT2004? Umm, no. There's just something missing. It's not quite as manically fast as it used to be and the emphasis on the graphics really hampers the game online, and that's where the game should be slick, smooth and brutal as hell. The rendering lag really kills the game, so if you don't have an absolute monster of a rig, you don't get the benefit of the glorious graphics. And what's the point of having a game that pretty if you have to dull down everything so that it's playable in the environment it's meant to be played in? I'm not a pro-gamer, but I do want to be able compete without completely sacrificing graphical fidelity and any sense of atmosphere. A bit of a disappointment, really.

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer - PC
Obsidian are really doing their best to completely ruin the good reputation they carried over from their days as Black Isle. Even buggier than KotOR 2, and seriously flawed in many ways, not least in terms of the graphics engine and game interface. The characters are uninteresting and if you're going to use the Plane of Shadow, at least find some way of being able to render it without turning melee fights into a morass of completely inseparable 3D models that prevents you from selecting enemies and party members alike. Another game like this, and I won't be going near Obsidian again with a barge pole. At least, not with my own money.

Crysis - PC
I'm still bitter about this going missing in the post. Though at least today I was able to report that fact to Play, and they should be sending me another copy soon, which, hopefully, WILL ACTUALLY ARRIVE...

Mass Effect - Xbox 360
We wants it... my preciousssss. I really need to buy a 360...

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bark/Byte: Mucus Factory

I'm back at work today, despite still coughing like a badly-tuned two-stroke engine and my nose continuing to pump out mucus on an industrial scale, breaking some convention of the Kyoto Protocol, no doubt. Predictably, I get into the office to find myself surrounded by other people who are ill, and I start thinking that I was better off working from home... so I bail out of the office at lunchtime and I'm back at the flat, sitting next to the electric heater. I figured if I'm going to spend more time coughing than writing software proposals, I might as well do it in the warm, rather than getting chilled to the bone by the office air conditioning...

It's been quite a hectic week already in the world of games journalism. At the centre of the current media storm are Eidos, publishers of every teenage gamer's favourite pair of breasts and bald pate. Their latest game, IO's sociopath-em-up, Kane and Lynch, hasn't been doing very well in the old reviews department, so Eidos, understandably, wanting to protect their investment, have gone to town with the advertising, throwing large amounts of money at the official website and on advertising campaigns on games review sites, such as Gamespot. All of this is pretty par for the course, you would think, except there's a bit of a kicker.

All the advertising quotes on the website appear to be from previews, rather than reviews, and have been married (rather misleadingly) to five stars. Which has especially pissed off gaming blog Kotaku, because Eidos have made it look like they game the game five stars when, in fact, they don't even review games at all.

Now, I've seen plenty of quotes on game boxes that come from previews instead of reviews, so that's arguably fair enough, but actually having the chutzpah to (apparently) put those preview quotes against a five star score because the rest of the review scores suck, well, that's a wee bit naughty, to say the least. This would all be a mildly amusing sideshow if it weren't all happening off the back of the sacking of Gamespot's long-serving Editor, Jeff Gerstmann. Gerstmann gave Kane and Lynch a 6/10, apparently just after Eidos had given Gamespot a six-figure advertising campaign, and it has been alleged that Eidos threatened to withdraw future advertising revenue from the site unless they got rid of him.

I don't know if this is true, but regardless of whether it is or not, both Eidos and Gamespot have shot themselves in the foot with a 155mm howitzer, from a public relations point of view. Games journalists and publisher PRs have a bit of a symbiotic, perhaps even parasitic, relationship: they both need each other to be able to do their job, yet both have a bit of a conflict of interest. The journalist wants to protect their integrity, yet needs to maintain a good relationship with the publisher to keep getting review code and exclusives, while the PR needs to protect their revenue and game by getting lots of positive press coverage (and hopefully) a good review score. A lot of this is done by making sure the people who review games have an interest in the title and the genre (for example, you wouldn't want me to review a point-and-click adventure, because I have absolutely zero interest in the genre), but this clearly doesn't matter a damn if the game is just plain average, or worse, spews slurry out of its ass like a nuclear-powered muck-spreader.

So, in this case, Eidos has scored a pyrrhic victory: they've got rid of the troublesome reviewer who gave their game a bad review just as they sold a huge advertising campaign to that site, but not only has the review score itself not been changed to something more generous, they've generated so much bad press, they've no doubt harmed sales more than if they'd just left the review alone and accepted it as a fair dinkum score. Gamespot are similarly screwed: regardless of the facts of the whole episode, they've given out the impression that they're susceptible to pressure from publishers, calling into question the editorial integrity of the entire site. That's going to lose them readers, and therefore, revenue.

An ugly episode all round, really.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Byte: Knowing your readership

One of the things I like best about having this blog is being able to check the search keywords that people have used to arrive at the site. They often range from the banal to the bizarre, and occasionally the anguished cry for help; none more so than this search string that brought a user from Portland, Oregon to my humble cranny of the internet yesterday:
terror from the deep.. the last fucking alien where is he?
I feel your pain, my American friend...

The answer is that he's hiding. As you've killed all of his brethren, his morale has dropped so low that he's panicked and is staying put (which means you can't detect the little bastard with motion trackers). The only way to find him is to do a methodical sweep through the entire map, or just get your crew behind cover and wait for the twenty turns or so it will take for him to recover enough of a spine to poke his slimy alien arse out of whichever hole it's been cowering in for the last hour. Your only consolation is that by this point he's probably dropped his weapon, so isn't really going to be a threat to your squad. He's just a time-wasting pain in the bum.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Bark: Muhammered

My illness this week has prevented me from blogging about an increasingly bizarre week in the news, but the one stand-out story for me this week hasn't been the Labour Party funding crisis, but the story about the religious and political furore surrounding a British Primary School Teacher in the Sudan, which has reached an all-time nadir for making mountains out of molehills.

Something tells me that if this teacher hadn't been white, British and Christian, we never would have got to the stage where people would be marching down the streets, baying for blood, because a teacher had allowed her students to name their class teddy bear after The Prophet. Some idiot in the Sudanese government has decided that this would be a great way of scoring a few cheap political points, and turned what would normally be considered to be a quite cute gesture of friendship respect towards a classmate (himself called Muhammad) by a few school kids into a full-blown religious insult worthy of jihad.

I despair. I really do.

If nothing else, this demonstrates precisely why religion and governance should remain two entirely separate entities. I've always been happy to let people believe in what they want, if it makes them happy, but this kind of rabid fundamentalism (which is not unique to Islam - Christians and Jews are just as bad... hell, even atheists aren't immune to being fundamentalist wankers) makes it look like humanity is still in the chuffing Dark Ages.

I can understand why Muslims might think there theology is under attack, indeed, there was a writer on last night's Channel Four News who claims that all religion is being marginalised in modern society, and she had to withdraw from doing a speech at a Christian Carol Service because her speech "might offend non-believers in the audience"... which begs a question: if you're a "non-believer" what the chuff are you doing at a carol service? But anyway... faiths don't do themselves any favours when the merest perceived slight can prompt this kind of reactionary hatred of people who might disagree with your beliefs. And here was me thinking that religions preached forgiveness, tolerance, peace and love? The evidence from the last week (nay, the last couple of millennia) would seem to prove otherwise...

Bark: The moral of the story

Never, ever, have a really good weekend... Why?

BECAUSE THEY WILL PUNISH YOU.

I've been suffering all week with a flu-like running nose (my nose has done several marathons today already), headaches and a very irritating recurrent cough, which has been preventing me from eating and sleeping (and also, working - but I'm not complaining so much about that) for the last few days. I started coughing up phlegm yesterday, which you would think is a sign of progress, but unfortunately it hasn't really improved matters, and the coughing has been accompanied by that feeling you get at the back of your throat whenever you've had some loose tea, and a tiny little leaf or twig fragment has gotten stuck in your craw. Annoying for five or ten minutes, yeah... try having that feeling for FOUR DAYS.

My manager at work thinks it's tonsillitis, and I'm inclined to agree with her. It's definitely swollen and painful back there, and I think I clawed out a tonsillolith last night, though I clearly didn't get rid of all of it, as I've still got that "something's stuck in your throat" feeling.

I'm off to the doctor in about 10 minutes, so hopefully they can sort me out, because this just isn't fun any more...

[Update:]
Just got back from the doctor's surgery, with a truckload of drugs.

We had a mild disagreement about the diagnosis, as he thinks I've got a rather virulent case of viral pharyngitis, though I managed to persuade him to prescribe me some penicillin, just in case things don't improve in the next day or two, and the problem happens to be bacterial, rather than viral. House-like, I still think it's an infection, rather than a virus, or possibly even both (no reason why there should only just be ONE thing wrong with me, right?), but I'm going to take the doc's advice and give it another day or two until I start taking the antibiotics (since if it is only just a virus, antibiotics won't do the slightest thing to help anyway), and just take a few ibuprofen to reduce the swelling in my throat and dull the pain a little...

Anyway, fingers crossed the road to recovery starts here, and that my girlfriend won't strangle me tonight for making her miss too many nights of sleep. Time will tell who's right, and at least I do have the option of taking the antibiotics if I need them... right, back to bed for me, I think...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bark/Byte: A most productive weekend

This weekend has probably taken about five years off the length of my life, but it has to go down as one of the most enjoyable weekends I've had in years.

On Friday night I got the rare opportunity to be a dirty, drunken stop-out, as I was attending the Videogamer.com launch party, where I finally got to meet the people who I've been writing for over the last three years or so. I think my liver and kidneys have only just re-opened diplomatic relations with my brain, after taking exception to my decision to see what all the fuss over Vodka and Red Bull is about after I'd already drunk perhaps half a dozen pints of beer - that wasn't a pretty morning after; though at least I wasn't alone in that regard. Not so much The House of the Dead, rather The House of Sore Heads...

The edge did get taken off my hangover by playing Mass Effect for a couple of hours on Saturday on a FIFTY-FIVE INCH plasma screen. Spectacular is not the word. Or perhaps it is... at any rate, what I played was impressive enough to convince me that I need to acquire a 360 to play it - I think that will be my birthday present to myself in January. After driving home around a curiously quiet M25 mid-afternoon, I had a nap before putting on the glad rags to have dinner with an ex-colleague of Fleur. I managed a glass and a half of Cru Bourgeois and my liver didn't protest too much...

On Sunday I was up fairly early - 9.30 is early for me on a weekend, anyway - so spent the morning reading Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, which is a slightly bizarre cross between auto-biography and a novel - but in a good way. Vonnegut makes me ponder the question of what really makes good writing: words are just words, a sentence is a sentence, so what makes some writing good and some writing bad when it is all constructed of the same basic raw material? Vonnegut answers this most eloquently with his writing: it's not so much the style of writing as what is being said - is it interesting, does it make you care or want to read more? It doesn't matter if it's narrative or musing, unless you can connect to the message being conveyed, it doesn't matter how it's delivered. This is what Vonnegut manages to do brilliantly - he has a message, and puts it across in a really beautiful way.

After devouring the entirety of Timequake in little more than a morning, I spent my afternoon playing Unreal Tournament III, which I have to say I found a wee bit underwhelming.

Yes, it's graphically glorious - probably the prettiest game I own, thanks to SOME BASTARD STEALING MY COPY OF CRYSIS IN THE POST, the new Necris vehicles and hoverboard are awesome (I love camping enemy bases in Darkwalkers), the new maps I've tried seem pretty good, but there just seems to be something missing. I tried playing the new Warfare mode online, and it was laggy as hell, I had weird sound glitches and the game just didn't seem to flow as well as before. I'm not convinced about the Orb - it's almost like they've tried to combine Onslaught with Bombing Run, and I'm not convinced it works. The rest is just deathmatch and capture the flag, really - so I'm not impressed they dropped the Assault game mode again, either. The single player "campaign" is pretty ridiculous, too. Trying to hack a narrative around deathmatch and capture the flag levels really doesn't make much sense - it was more in keeping with the game style when you got to build your team and play through a tournament. This whole "battlefield respawners" thing and the backronym for FLaG (Field Lattice Generator) is ludicrous. I'm not sure I'll be bothering any more with the single player campaign, as I really don't give a monkeys whether the Necris slaughter all life on Earth or not... it just seems a bit too contrived. There are a few other things I don't like, as well: the arrow trails pointing you in the direction of the next node seems like a real step backwards. The best thing about Onslaught was that you could attack more than one node and the game gave you the freedom to go off on your own and sneak a capture while everyone else was fighting for the middle ground. Here it seems like they're trying to funnel people towards a particular direction, which gets rid of a lot of the tactical freedom you have. I could be really nasty and say that it's to make things easier for the console-'tards, but I'm not sure that's true - since most console-'tards are PC gamers as well; it's like they've designed in the functionality to the game so that you don't have to learn the maps anymore... Trying to make your game accessible and user-friendly is one thing, but leading players around by the nose with arrows and saying "this is how you should fight over the maps" is another thing entirely. The joy of online gaming is the unpredictability and randomness of it all - if you try and take that away with "user aids" you might as well just fight bots. Very sad, really... 7/10.

I followed that with a trip to the gym (shock, horror!), doing a full set of weights and a bit of cardio-work on the arc-trainer. And I didn't have a heart attack, which was nice. I should have had an early night after all that, but I didn't, of course. Instead I watched Top Gear (James May is increasingly my hero - which is getting rather worrying) and then played through MASQ another couple of times, finally finding the beach ending where you get to run off with Nikki and Andrew to start a new life (though Susan wasn't really pleased about that).

So, all in all, a packed and rewarding weekend. It's almost a relief to get back to work, so I can sit down and relax...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Byte: Digital Rights Mismanagement

An article about copy protection on Rock Paper Shotgun has spawned a very interesting comments thread. Make sure you read Chris Delay's thoughts as well.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bark/Byte: Consolation

It's been over a week and Crysis still hasn't arrived, which I guess means that some bastard in the postage system has filtched it. Thieving scum. And I have to wait another two weeks before I can even report that it's gone AWOL, because Play say you have to give them 21 days before they can investigate... annoying. It's the first thing I've ever had go missing from Play in about three years, so I guess, statistically speaking, something was bound to go missing at some point; just WHY DID IT HAVE TO BE THIS ONE? RAARRRGGH.

At least I have plenty of other things to play. Hopefully my copy of Unreal Tournament 3 WILL arrive in the next day or two, and beyond that, I've still got The Witcher, Race 07 and Metroid Prime 3 to keep me gainfully occupied.

Now that I've got my consoles fully HD'd up, I had a brief flirt with Metroid - and got stuck on the first boss, naturally. The component cable seems to have sorted out the problems I'd been having with sound loss that affected both the Wii and the Gamecube (when I had one) - I don't think that they liked sharing the same SCART socket with the Xbox, so I had to turn the volume up to maximum just so I could hear anything - but with the component leads and switcher box, the sound is absolutely fine. It's nice being able to play Wii games when you can actually hear what the heck is going on... so I'll be playing a lot more on it in the near future, as I've got one hell of a backlog to get through: Mercury Meltdown Revolution, Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Paper Mario and Metroid Prime 3... not to mention all the Gamecube games (Resident Evil 4, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, P.N.03, Metroid Prime 1 & 2...) I have still have to finish, too.

But the one thing that's really stopping me from getting too depressed about Crysis going missing is that England is now in national mourning. As a Scotsman, I find this kind of abject failure of the England team highly amusing, and the hand-wringing press coverage even more so. HAH-HAAH! NOW YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE, YOU SMUG ENGLISH TWATS. Welcome to the world of a Scotland supporter....

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Byte: Maybe Mr. T is pretty handy with computers!

Mr. T and William Shatner have done some rather awesome TV adverts for World of Warcraft.

Mr. T is the greatest. I want a Night Elf Mohawk now...

Bark: Simply Staggering

This kind of incompetence just beggars belief.

What kind of idiot sends TWENTY FIVE MILLION personal records through the post on an unencrypted CD, not just once, BUT TWICE? A special kind of idiot: we call them Civil Servants.

You don't send a dump of an entire database, especially one that contains names, addresses, National Insurance numbers and bank account details through the fucking post. It's an identity thief's wet dream. I guess this is what you get when you let people who don't understand IT systems take positions where they have to manage and distribute electronic data. Unbelievable, and unforgivable.

Twenty five million people is pretty much 50% of the population of the UK, and their details are now floating around out there somewhere, waiting to be found - I wonder how many people are going to have to change their bank accounts now - and all it took was one imbecile wearing a suit to do something stupid... it just shows you how you can set up all the safeguards and procedures you like, but the system is still fragile and vulnerable to a single user interaction...

What makes things even worse is that this numpty is still probably in their job - because trying to fire a Civil Servant is like trying to get a government minister to accept responsibility... and the government will still try and push through the ID card scheme - a system which will contain these kinds of personal records for everyone in the country - when they can't even keep a grip on the data they already have. It's ludicrous. Shakespeare had it wrong when he had Dick the Butcher in Henry VI say "the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" - we should get rid of the civil servants first, and then the politicians. Then we can worry about the lawyers...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Byte: Midweek Crysis

Since my copy of Crysis (which was posted last Wednesday) STILL HASN'T TURNED UP, I've been ploughing more time into Race 07 - the review of which I should be finishing later this week, so more on that later - and replaying through The Witcher, just for the fun of it.

The Witcher has probably been my most pleasant gaming surprise of the year, though clearly not everyone seems to agree - *cough*PC Gamer*cough* - but that's fine, I guess, you're never going to please everyone. It is odd though, that they're so far off the average, especially when you consider that most people will read a 67% mark in PCG as a "don't touch with a barge pole", and I have to admit I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this one.

The Witcher's a heck of a lot better than 67% - I rate it above Neverwinter Nights 2, for example, which I found was curiously overrated by just about everyone to the tune of 10-20%, seemingly because three people might possibly use the toolset to make a module that doesn't suck like a Dyson with a 20,000HP, supercharged turboshaft engine. The accusation of the game being misogynist is a little baffling as well - misogynist implies a hatred of women - Geralt may be a rake, but it's clear that he's a serial womaniser because his profession requires him to move around so much and because he likes spending time with women - not because he's harbouring some secret hatred of the female of the species - in fact, this behaviour is almost expected of him in the context of the world's fiction (as evidenced by his liaison with Rosalind in chapter 3). Furthermore, the women themselves are more often than not the ones who initiate the encounters with him; it's not like Geralt is a callous rapist leaving a trail of broken lives behind him... so, misogynist? No. Crass? Yes. Bawdy? Definitely. But misogynist or sexist? I don't see it myself. You could have the same argument over whether Page 3 or "Men's Mag" girls are misogynist or not - whether you like ogling them or not, are they being exploited, or do the girls know exactly what they are getting themselves into and are exploiting men's predilection for attractive women by earning more money for a handful of photoshoots than the people who look at them do in a year? I'll leave you to form your own judgement on that one...

It is funny though how this kind of contention with a videogame always springs up when the subject of sex is involved - if it were an argument just over the violence, people would just be saying "ah, just get on with it", but mention sex and the brains of foamy-mouthed, ADHD-twitching, Counterstrike-playing twelve year olds will no doubt explode, so they need to be "protected"? Personally, I don't think reviewers should have to moralise to justify a score for a game, though I did in my Witcher review just as much as PCG's did - albeit from a diametrically opposite point of view - where do you draw the line on judging a game on moral grounds? Do we really want to reach the point where you can't give a game a good score because someone might find the content distasteful? It does really strike me as odd, as we don't seem to have much trouble with games based around killing people, but most people in real life indulge in sex and find it a natural enough thing to do, but don't go around killing people with assault weapons, since murder and manslaughter are rather frowned upon, to put it mildly... I could name books or films that stand out as brilliant examples of their particular form, despite (or perhaps because of) morally ambiguous or objectionable content, so why the disparity with videogames?

I'll have to put some more thought into this one...

Anyway - some good news, before this post becomes too angsty - my Xbox HD component lead and component switcher box turned up today. On tonight's menu (assuming Crysis still hasn't arrived by the time I get home): Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in 32 inches of spangly HD-component-o-vision.

TASTY.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bark: Let it snow

Apparently half the country ground to a halt yesterday because of unpredicted snow flurries. I was completely oblivious to this fact until I got into work this morning, because in my little part of the world IT WAS CHUCKING IT DOWN WITH RAIN ALL DAY.

I miss proper winters. It's not that I like being cold, rather that if I have to be cold, snow is infinitely preferable to rain... Snow is pretty and fun, while rain's just dismal and depressing, especially when the days are so short. So next time you decide to snow in the UK, Mr Climate, please drop about three feet of the stuff on my flat.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Byte: Happiness is a big Mother-Liking TV

As I've been a bit busy lately with reviewing The Witcher, playing MASQ for kicks and also getting stuck into Race 07 (for review), I've been neglecting the consoles again. That, however, is about to change, because I've just eBayed a 3rd-party Xbox HD component lead and a component switcher box, so I can have both my Xbox and my Wii hooked up in HD to the new TV.

I have, of course, messed around a little with the consoles on the new TV, using their standard SCART connections (playing KotOR in gigant-o-vision was just to mouthwatering a prospect to ignore) but without being able to use the RGB SCART socket (which is occupied by the DVD player), I had noticed that the Xbox image was suffering from a little blurring, especially at the edges of the screen; not so badly that it made the games impossible to play (and might have more to do with the fact that KotOR doesn't have a widescreen mode more than anything else), but I did think it would hurt my eyes after a couple of hours - so I thought I might as well go for the component cables to sharpen up the image - after all, what's the point of having an HD TV if you're not going to use the HD bit?

The other reason for getting the HD cable for the Xbrick was that my buddy Charles has been suggesting that I should mod it into a proper media centre, which includes a multi-region DVD player than can up-scale the original DVD output into 720p. Which sounds rather good to me, as it means I can get rid of the old cheapo DVD player I got from ASDA five years ago for about £38 (which I turned into a multi-region player using a remote control hack - gotta love cheap, globalised technology!), meaning there will be enough room in the TV unit for me to sneak in an Xbox 360 next year when Fleur isn't looking. Whoops! Did I say that out loud?

Bark: The Life Aquatic

You should know by now that I can't resist a good story about squirrels.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bark: What. The. Chuff?

Scottish court sentences man to three years probation for... wait for it... having sex with his BICYCLE. I think this calls for a ... or maybe even a ...... Or perhaps as a last resort a :-0

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Byte: It's like watching a car crash in slow motion where no-one's wearing seat belts

Eurogamer post their Assassin's Creed review (which pretty much confirms what I thought the game would be like). Cue the inevitable comments thread blaming everything on Jade Raymond. For the uninitiated, Jade is a) a woman, b) really quite attractive and c) the game's producer.

I don't pretend to know a huge amount about videogames production, but I do know this: You don't get to the position of being the producer of a high profile title like Assassin's Creed with a company like Ubisoft without being DAMNED GOOD AT THE JOB. I'm with Kieron on this one (see posts 102 and 151)...

Byte: With apologies to Iggy Pop

You're wearing a MASQ! You're wearing a MASQ! Which MASQ are you?

I finally got around to playing MASQ, thanks to Tom F's feature on it hitting the PCG website. I've played through nearly half of my forty lives (that you get free with the download), and I'm pretty sure I've not even found half of the possible endings yet.

The game might not sound too promising at first glance: you're the chairman of a fashion company, who needs money to front a televised fashion show to launch your new range of highly revealing underwear, but quite soon the intrigue starts to kick in. Your wife wants you to take on a project from her boss, Williams, to fund the gig, while your other option for funding is a loan from the bank. The new clerical assistant, Nikki, is trying to get you into her pants and your business partner Carlos has gone missing after a night on the tiles with someone who wasn't his wife. The kicker is that Williams wants to ruin you so he can steal your wife, and he's rather well connected, since he's married to a mobster's daughter.

From such a relatively simple premise, the level of choice in what you can do is rather staggering. It's not false choice, either: you've got real moral choice - do you sleep with Nikki and betray your wife? Do you stay faithful to her? Or do you "service" them both and try to get away with it? You can also find out the truth behind Carlos's disappearance, get thrown in jail, get killed, divorced, end up a miserable business failure or a resounding success. Not all the characters are what they appear to be, either. You can also consort with gangsters, assault bankers, engage in bit of espionage and even shoot people in the cock. There's so much in there that it's almost a shame that you're limited to 40 "lives" - the 40 runs through of the final episode (episode 5) in the game - but there are possibilities of reaching endings before you get into Episode 5, none of them being particularly positive.

I think my favourite ending so far (spoilers here, obviously) was getting Susan (your in-game wife) to warn Capricho, the mobster, so when Williams (your main antagonist in the game) tries to have him assassinated, he's wearing a bullet-proof vest, so while Williams starts gloating about his victory, he gets his throat slashed by his somewhat irate father-in-law (accompanied by my favourite line in the game: "Do you believe in knife after death?") and you launch your product with a whole load of razzmatazz and live happily ever after with Susan. That is, until Nikki sends Susan the tape recording of you having rough sex with her... whoops.

After playing through it quite a few times now, I can see why it made it into PCG's Top 100. It might not be graphically stunning (though the art is nicely done with very clean lines and a good amount of detail) and it might not have any sound at all, but it's nicely scripted and it's quite amazing to see how densely they've managed to pack story elements into a game that only takes about half an hour to play through. I highly recommend downloading it, as there's a lot in there to experiment with and it is free after all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Byte: As good as Zywiec

For the uninitiated, Zywiec is a fine Polish lager beer, that my local supermarket started stocking after Britain started getting invaded by Polish plumbers a couple of years ago. I like it a lot; my liver less so, since you could tranquillise rhinos with it.

Another Polish import I rather like at the moment is The Witcher, of which I'm now rather glad I asked for review code. I've spent the last couple of weeks playing it, and in terms of a videogame, it's been one of the most pleasant surprises I've had this year. After the somewhat predictable disappointment of the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion, The Witcher was pretty much my last hope of a decent single-player RPG experience this year, and I have to say I was rather impressed. Great graphics and sound, a decent enough story and lashings of foul language, sex and ultra-violence... what's not to like? Assuming you're rather more open-minded than the typical Daily Mail reader, that is.

As I say in the review, it's my favourite single-player RPG since Oblivion, so it's well worth a punt if you fancy something to counter-weight all those flashy shooters that are hitting the street right now.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bark: RIP Rory

My parents' cat, Rory, had to be put down today. He was almost 20 years old - quite amazing for a cat, and I'm sure he only lived that long just to annoy everyone... I'm going to miss him a lot - because despite being a grumpy old bugger, he was such a lovely cat.



Photo courtesy of Mum.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bark: Brownie Points +1,000,000

The new TV had its desired effect when my girlfriend got home tonight. She gasped the second she saw it, and stood there dumbfounded for about five minutes. In twelve years, I don't think I've actually ever seen her literally speechless before.

It is a spectacularly gorgeous bit of kit, though. Not a single dead pixel, either. It's just a little unfortunate that our TV aerial, which is shared with the flat above us (as we're in a block of flats) is slightly misaligned, so our TV reception isn't perfect - but at least we can pick up Film4 properly now, and the in-built signal amplifier means that the reception is a little bit better than before. It's the quality of the DVD playback where it really shines, though.

I tried out a couple of the major action scenes in Revenge of the Sith, and it's absolutely awesome. I get the feeling we're going to be watching rather more films now. I just need to pick up a HDMI lead for the Wii, and then I can really make a start with Metroid Prime 3. I might also replace the Xbox with a 360 come my birthday in January as well. Though that might depend on the car, as it needs an MOT, road taxing and a service in the next few months... and do you remember what I said yesterday about wanting to buy the TV *now* so something else didn't just swallow up the money instead?

Well, as I was dropping the old TV off at the recycling centre, the battery in the car gave up the ghost. So when I did my civic duty and was socially and environmentally conscious about not just smashing the thing to bits or kicking it out of the door of my car (à la Vincent Hanna in Heat), I went to restart the car, turned the key in the ignition and... nothing. Dead as a proverbial Dodo. That's the last time I fucking do any recycling, thinks I. Though I can't complain too much, five years and 68,000 miles isn't bad for a car battery, and after all, this is why I'm an AA member. That's the breakdown people, not Alcoholics Anonymous... £77 pounds later - just as well I'd bought the TV the previous day, otherwise I might have gotten all sensible and put it off for another few months. And where would be the fun in that?

Right, I'm off to watch Heroes in 32 inches of super-ace-widescreen-o-vision.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bark: Someone's in for a shock

My girlfriend and I celebrate twelve years together as a couple on Friday, so I've been putting some thought into what she might like as a present. The usual options of flowers, chocolate and dirty weekends away are all out, because a) she keeps killing the orchids I buy her, b) she keeps telling me not to buy her chocolate, and c) she's planned a night out with the girls from work on Saturday, so I can't whisk her away to Paris like I did for our tenth "anniversary".

So what to do?

The answer was obvious. Don't wimp out doing something obvious, like buying her some earrings or a necklace. Oh, no. I bought a 32" LCD HD TV, instead. It gets delivered tomorrow. I better have the ambulance on standby for when Fleur gets home...

Byte: And the award for Best Subtitle Pun for a Videogames Article of the Year goes to...

Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer!

Title: Daniel Craig didn't want to do Bond game
Subtitle: Double oh go on then

Well, I found it funny...

Bark: Sixty pence

I almost did it. I almost finished a month between paychecks without going overdrawn for the first time in... well, pretty much since I bought my car, actually. I missed it by sixty-FUCKING-pence. And all because of the interest the bank charged me for being overdrawn the previous month. Well, that's not entirely true - I could have put a fiver's less of diesel into the car at the weekend, but I really don't like the way that banks sneak in these charges in a way that always seems to trip a criteria where they can charge you a little more. It's not like me going sixty pence overdrawn will actually cost them anything, since I was overdrawn while the UK banking system was closed (i.e. the last transaction yesterday tipped me over, while the first transaction this morning was putting my paycheck into my account), but of course, they'll charge me for the privilege. Okay, it's only going to be a couple of pennies, but it's the principle of the thing. I would get really indignant about it, because banks really don't have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to banking charges being totally disproportionate to the actual cost of the facility they're charging you for, but for the sake of sixty pence... it's not worth the extra stress really, is it?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bark: Millais

In an effort to further my cultural education, Fleur and I paid a visit to the Millais exhibition at Tate Britain this weekend. At £11, the entry price is fairly steep, but it's worth every penny. Millais was staggeringly prolific - there are easily sixty paintings on display (I stopped counting after the first three rooms, and there are seven in the exhibition), and they are all universally superb.

One sketch study he did in preparation for Isabella is just frighteningly good. The quality of the soft shadows are simply astounding, and when you look up close you can see every single pencil stroke and how not a single one is wasted (unlike, say, one of my sketches)... kind of awe-inspiring, really.

Millais himself was quite an interesting chap, not least for nicking the wife of his best mate, and having eight kids with her; which probably explains his prolificacy as an artist as well - all those mouths to feed - and with a peak income of around £30,000 a year (one heck of a lot of money in Victorian times) at least he didn't suffer too much for his art.

My favourite pieces at the exhibition were The Eve of St Agnes, Twins, A Jersey Lily and Bright Eyes (can't find a picture, sadly), plus one of his late landscapes I can't remember the name of now. All of the pieces are pretty stunning, though, and the exhibition is very well laid out and constructed. Well worth a visit.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bark: No surprise there

Fernando Alonso leaves McLaren. An inevitable postscript on a topsy-turvy F1 season.

You've got to wonder where the heck Alonso is going to end up next season. The rumours are that he'll go to Red Bull or back to Renault. I think the latter of the two is more likely. If I were Heikki Kovalainen, I'd be getting rather excited at the prospect of a seat-swap...

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Byte: And the award for Most Ill-Conceived Videogames Article Of The Year goes to...

Johnny Minkley of Eurogamer!

I'm pretty tired of the old analogy expecting films and games to be treated in the same breath and to the same standards. In many ways they are similar, but they are not the same. Games-writers, PLEASE GET THIS INTO YOUR THICK SKULLS. Gamers and games-writers are always first to crow about how videogames are so much better and more involving than films because they're interactive and you're not just a passive voyeur of the action, only to turn around and cry foul when they're judged on a different standard to those films that games are so different from. WAKE. UP. AND. SMELL. THE. FUCKING. ROSES. YOU. WHINING. HYPOCRITES.

I would take the article apart paragraph by paragraph, but I've neither the time, nor the inclination, so instead I will just address my main bones of contention.

Firstly, the very comparison of Eastern Promises to Manhunt 2 is ludicrous. Eastern Promises is primarily a character drama and only has two overtly violent scenes (not three): the scene in the barbershop and the scene in the bathhouse. The second throat-cutting isn't violent at all - because the victim character is stupendously drunk - he doesn't even realise what has been done to him for a few seconds. These scenes make up perhaps four minutes of the total screen time of an hour and forty minutes. So it's hardly a slash-a-thon like Hostel. And this brings me to my second point.

The representation of violence in Eastern Promises is so jarring compared to the rest of the film that it provokes a reaction of shock and revulsion (as it is supposed to) - the purpose of violence in the film is to sicken and repulse the viewer, to make them realise that violence is ugly, brutal and has deadly consequences - it's not there to titillate at all. The scenes do not glamourise violence in any way, shape or form, and the power of the scenes is entirely because the rest of the film is relatively genteel. Violent things happen in the film, yes, but they are not the central focus of the film - almost a complete opposite to a game like Manhunt 2. The article has either been written by someone who doesn't understand this, or has chosen to ignore it, because otherwise the comparison wouldn't fit their agenda.

Unfortunately, trying to equate a violence-driven videogame to a character and plot-driven film simply doesn't work.

The story in Manhunt 2 is almost incidental to the game experience. The whole point is to maim and kill your way through the entire length of the game - the implication being that you associate your "fun" from the game by committing acts of violence. Worse, the videogame expects you to empathise with the protagonists, (who, in the case of Manhunt 2, are mentally institutionalised sociopaths) otherwise there is no reason to continue playing the game than to commit more senseless acts of extreme violence.

Compare this to Eastern Promises: the main protagonists are a midwife and a gangster - Viggo Mortensen's character - who, it should be noted, only kills in self-defence when confronted by two knife-armed murderers. He also acts compassionately against the expected type of the role on several occasions (because there is more to the character than initially meets the eye - I won't say more for fear of spoilers).

The comparison doesn't stand up not just because one is a film and the other is a game, but because the core of what they are trying to say are literally poles apart. Manhunt 2 says "Violence is fun." Eastern Promises says "Violence wrecks lives." Two very different messages.

I've already gone on at length as to why I had no objections to Manhunt 2 being banned in the UK, so I need not reiterate them here. I've played more violent games than most, and know full well how specious the arguments are about films, books or games inspiring real-life violence. That in itself, however, is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that you can publish academic studies all you want, but mass perception of the "problem" is what matters.

Manhunt 2 has become some sort of poster boy for both sides of the violence in videogames argument, and the fixation on it (in my opinion) does nothing to change perceptions or aid either side. Instead we go around in circles saying "videogames are sick murder simulators" and "don't censor our art! you don't do it with films!"

For fuck's sake, can we move on, please? It's like a pair of blind men fighting over a pair of reading glasses. All whining about the banning of Manhunt 2 does is make gamers sound like babies who've thrown their dummies out of the pram.

"WAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH! WE WANT OUR MINDLESS, GORE-SPLATTERED MURDER SIMULATORS! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!"

As far as I can see, the problem isn't that games are starting to tackle more adult issues in a more graphic and realistic way - the problem is that games are growing up and gamers aren't following suit...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bark: Your appointment to FEMA will be finalised within the week

Bring back Walton Simons, all is forgiven...

Byte: It's just like the buses

I go six months without any review copies at all, and then two come along at once... admittedly, the gap between arrivals has mainly been through my choice (unlike the London buses), mainly thanks to work, but it is nice to get back into writing "properly" again - if you can call games journalism "proper" writing, that is (and I do).

The games in question are Race 07, which (somewhat unsurprisingly) is a car racing game from the same stable as the brilliant GTR2. I have the first Race game, and rather enjoyed it, as the cars are somewhat more controllable, since they don't have stupendous amounts of horsepower under the bonnet. The hook for this year's version is that they've got a couple of extra classes of car (beyond the WTCC cars), what include Formula 3000 and Formula BMW single-seaters. They're essentially a poor man's Formula One car, but they're known for very close racing, so should be a lot of fun.

The second game, however, takes rather higher priority over Race 07, as I've been intrigued by it since I started hearing good rumblings about it at last year's Game Convention in Leipzig. The game in question is The Witcher.

I've not played too much of it so far (a couple of hours' worth), but my first impressions are that it's really rather good. And judging from the names of the movie files in the game resource directory, your character can have no less than 24 sexual encounters. Which is an impressive statistic in itself. The engine is also very nice (a much better revamping of the Aurora engine than Obsidian's effort) and combat is a little different from your typical RPG. I'm looking forward to playing more tonight. I'll post the link to the review when it's up, naturally.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Byte: Staturday Night Fever

Since I've been playing a lot of Neverwinter Nights 2 lately, I've obviously been mucking about with character classes quite a bit. Then I started wondering whether my own alignment and preferred class had changed since I last took the AD&D test. Unfortunately, the original test page seems to have disappeared into the mysterious aether, but I did manage to find a mirror, albeit without the Deity results.

Interestingly, my results have changed rather a lot since I last took the test a couple of years back - I'm very surprised to see that not only have I changed alignment and race, but what was my secondary class is now my primary (and only) class. Here's the new AD&D me:

You Are A True Neutral Half-Elf Bard

Alignment:
True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Race:
Half-Elves are a cross between a human and an elf. They are smaller, like their elven ancestors, but have a much shorter lifespan. They are sometimes looked down upon as half-breeds, but this is rare. They have both the curious drive of humans and the patience of elves.

Primary Class:
Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Secondary Class:


Detailed Results:

Alignment:
Law and Chaos:
Law ----- (-2)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Chaos --- XXXXXXXXXXX (11)

Good and Evil:
Good ---- XXXX (4)
Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Evil ---- XXX (3)

Race:
Human ---- XXXX (4)
Half-Elf - XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Elf ------ XXXXXX (6)
Gnome ---- (-1)
Halfling - XXXXXXXXX (9)
Dwarf ---- (-4)
Half-Orc - XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)

Class:
Fighter -- XXXXX (5)
Barbarian -XXXXXXXX (8)
Ranger --- XXXXX (5)
Monk ----- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Paladin -- XX (2)
Cleric --- XXXXXX (6)
Mage ----- XXXXXXXXX (9)
Druid ---- XXXX (4)
Thief ---- (-3)
Bard ----- XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)


I'm quite tempted to try this out next time a roll a new character.

Bark: I'm all ears

I'm having a catch up chat with my work cohort and buddy Charles, when in our usual spirit of throwing non-sequiturs at each other, he throws me a link to a picture. I don't know how he came into possession of the link, and I don't really want to know, either, but anyway: this was the picture.



Spot the difference. It's quite subtle, and I didn't notice at first, but yes, this girl has had plastic surgery to give her elf ears. The first question you immediately ask is "Why?", closely followed by "Dear God, why?!?"

The answer no doubt has something to do with the fact she can make a huge amount of money with an elf cosplay website, because there are slightly strange people who like that kind of thing. Each to their own, I suppose.

Then I realised that the link to the picture said "gallery1.jpg", which implied there were more. So I tweaked the URL and...



BY ALL THAT'S UNHOLY, DEAR BEELZEBUB, MY EYES!
AIIEEEEEE! RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!


It was at that point my bravery failed me. There may be more... You know, I can understand the girl doing it - I think she was fairly cute to begin with, so she can probably get away with it (at least until she's the wrong side of 40, anyway - by which point she'll have made so much money from her inevitable scantily-clad elf website that she can retire and have plastic surgery again to put them back to normal) and get a whole load of geek-sex from amorous elf-o-philes in the meantime. Though I'm not sure whether that classes as a bonus. But the bloke... deary me.

Really, I mean, why? Why don't you just tattoo "I will never, ever have sex again in my entire life" on your forehead? Or at least get a t-shirt with it monogrammed on. It'd be just as effective and a whole lot cheaper... It's as if being ginger wasn't large enough an impediment to getting laid and he thought "In for a penny..." (I'm not gingerist, by the way - female redheads are almost universally super-sexy, but whenever I see redheaded men, I think "ginger gnome". Cruel, perhaps, but still true... anyway, I digress)

Sorry, but I really just can't get over just how WRONG that picture is. I think I need to go and lie down now...

Bark: I have sharp knives and I know how to use them

I haven't given you a recipe in a while, so in lieu of a proper blog post today, here's the scallop and asparagus risotto recipe I cooked on Friday night for one of my girlfriend's colleagues. I am informed (from sources other than myself) that it was good. But then again, these sources (my guests for the evening) have seen my collection of large cooking knives, so may have just been being polite... Do shout out if you enjoy any of the recipes I post - there are plenty more where this came from. If I ever find the time I do intend to compile them into a book at some point.

Scallop & Asparagus risotto: (serves 4)


Ingredients:

300-400g Arborio risotto rice (depends how large you like your portions – oo-er, missus, etc!)
400g of King Scallops
1 red chilli (de-seeded)
2 cloves of garlic (finely sliced)
2 medium red onions
300g of button mushrooms (peeled, and sliced into quarters)
2 Ramiro sweet peppers
1 pointed spicy green pepper (I buy these from Sainsbury’s, though if you can’t find them, a normal green pepper will do)
1 large courgette
350g of asparagus spears
10g of fresh lemon thyme
10g of fresh rosemary
10g of fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 pint of vegetable stock
1 bottle of medium or dry white wine (nothing too fancy, a run of the mill Chardonnay with do)
Grated parmesan to serve (as much as you like!)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt
Black Pepper

Utensils:
1 large, deep sided pan for the risotto
1 heavy based frying pan for the scallops
2 spatulas or cooking spoons

Method:

The trick with risottos is good timing – put in the ingredients in the right order, don’t overwhelm the pan with stock and keep stirring – and it’s really hard to go wrong.

First, prepare the vegetables. Don’t chop the vegetables too finely, keep things nice and rustic (to use an overly pretentious chefy term) because you want things to still have a bit of bite and texture to them after 20 minutes in the stock. If you slice things too thinly, they’ll just get obliterated and turn to mush as you stir the risotto, which isn’t too appetising, really. So prepare the onions, peppers, courgette by slicing them into chucks around 1cm thick. Similarly with the asparagus, you want to keep them fairly chunky, but not cut the pieces so large they won’t cook. Take off the bottom inch or so of the asparagus spears, because they tend to be a little woody and fibrous, chuck them on the compost (or in the bin) and then slice the remains into quarters (the sections should be about 3-4cm long). Finely chop the herbs and mix together, and then finely slice the garlic and the chilli. You can keep the seeds in if you like your food really hot, but the chilli is going to be used with scallops, so bear in mind if you keep the seeds in, the chilli will rather overwhelm the taste of the scallops…

Now for the cooking!

Fry off the onions over a high heat in some olive oil, adding the garlic when the onions start to colour. Do not let garlic brown, just give it about 30 seconds to flavour the oil and then add the mushrooms, seasoning with a little salt to draw out the moisture and plenty of black pepper. After another minute or so, add the courgette and stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Then add the asparagus, stir frying for another minute. At this point add the rice, stirring constantly (and get used to doing this, as you’re going to need to do it for the next 20 minutes!) and allow the rice to fry until the grains start to turn translucent. Start a stopwatch, or a kitchen timer, and you need to time twenty minutes. At this point you need to add your first bit of stock. Do NOT add all the stock at once. Ideally, you should have the stock in a pan, and you add a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly, adding more stock as it gets absorbed by the rice. But if you’re just lazy like I am, make the stock in a pint glass and just put in a quarter to begin with.

Stir like crazy so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan – because if it starts sticking to the bottom, it’ll burn very quickly, and that’s clearly not good! As the rice absorbs the stock that’s in the pan keep stirring (have you taken the hint yet??) and add about 150ml of white wine, alternating wine with stock as you need to add more liquid to the pan. Taste and season as you go (don’t be afraid of using plenty of black pepper – but don’t add too much salt, because there’s enough of that in the parmesan to give you a heart attack as it is!). When your timer says you’ve got about 10 minutes to go, add all the peppers and the herb mix. Keep adding stock and wine and don’t let the rice burn…

When you have about 6 minutes to go, put the scallops and chilli in a pan with olive oil, and fry over a high heat, turning the scallops every two minutes (Don’t forget to keep stirring the risotto! Sorry, I’m labelling the point somewhat, but it is important!)
Let the scallops brown slightly, but don’t let them overcook – because there’s nothing worse than an overcooked scallop (Rubber-tastic!). After you’ve turn the scallops twice, take the pan off the heat, and add some white wine to the pan, stirring gently to deglaze the pan – this will also help keep the scallops moist while you finish up with the risotto.

If you’ve got your timing right, the risotto should be done by now – the rice will be lovely and creamy, but still with a slight firmness at the centre. You should also have used all of the vegetable stock, and at least half of the bottle of wine – to give you an indication on how much liquid the rice should have soaked up.

Now all there is to do is plate up – the risotto should still be quite liquid (not runny, but like a thick cream) so it’s best to use plates with a bit of depth on them – or even use bowls if you want that whole comfort-eating experience. Serve the risotto first, then putting the scallops on top, and finally dusting the whole plate with grated (or shaved) parmesan, in case your arteries weren’t screaming enough in protest as it is…

Then get a fork and… oh, I guess you’ve got this part figured out already! ;-)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bark: Eastern Promises

I've always passingly liked David Cronenberg's movies, but it was until I saw A History of Violence that I really enjoyed one of his film beyond a schlock level. So when Fleur saw that his new film, Eastern Promises was on in Guildford, we wasted no time in booking it. After all, Fleur has the hots for Viggo Mortensen, and I rather like Naomi Watts, so what's not to like, eh?

The film sets its stall out very early, and Cronenberg's expert eye for the gruesome certainly remains undimmed. Like A History of Violence, there's actually isn't that much violence in the film, but that simply makes what there is hit harder and really shock. The two films are actually quite similar in a lot of ways, as Mortensen's character is more than what he initially seems - though I won't say more than that. The characters themselves are very nicely handled, and the acting is first-rate throughout.

So if you're stuck for something to do, it's well worth seeing.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bark: Americans as smart as squirrels - official

This little guy didn't have an exit strategy, either.

Byte: Your last meal

I've had a much keener sense of my own mortality this week, thanks to my digestive system mounting an insurgency of epic proportions against my governing body, so as I was playing Mask of the Betrayer last night (a game with it's own obsessions around death and mortality - namely a plot based around Kelemvor, God of The Dead), I got to thinking "I hope this dross isn't the last thing I ever play."

Yes, unfortunately, Mask of the Betrayer isn't doing much to endear itself to me. The game keeps crashing at inopportune moments, the camera makes combat desperately hard to manage - especially on the monochrome Shadow Plane where characters are indistinguishable from each other if they get too close, and where holding down the button to highlight selectable characters and objects simply causes a whiteout where you can't see anything at all in the mass of limbs. And the less said about the GUI the better. It would be okay if the AI was any cop, but that's rubbish, too. I was trying to fight a group of thieves in Shadow Mulsantir, and after my party decided it was going to stand in a bottleneck so that no-one could move, my NPCs just stood there like lemons getting hacked to pieces by sneak attacks, because the crappy camera made it impossible for my one melee character to find and attack the rogues merrily grinding my party into kibble. So after about the fifth attempt (and the second system crash caused by me trying to switch character members in the middle of the battle), I reasoned, "Fuck this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to reboot and play Portal."

Which all sparked a bit of a puzzle: Say you knew for certain that you had six hours to live, and you could only play one game. What would it be? (And I mean a videogame, not "hide the sausage with the supermodel"...)

So, readers, some suggestions, please.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Byte: Whee! Wii!

My copy of Metroid Prime 3 is in the post! This might be what it takes to kick-start me playing on my Wii again. As I've still got a practically untouched copy of Twilight Princess to get stuck into and literally untouched copies of Super Paper Mario and Mercury Meltdown Revolution to start as well. It's not that I've become bored with the Wii at all - I've not really touched any of my consoles in weeks (months?) because I've been busy with other things. But now that interesting things are starting to come out again, maybe I'll get back to them. We shall see...

Bark: Crisps are not the only fruit

My stomach spent most of last night trying to chew its way out of my chest cavity, because I seem to have the most dreadful over-reactions to food containing anything more than the slightest smidgen of chilli. So perhaps having a third of a jar of hot lime pickle accompanying my curry last night wasn't such a good idea.

Not having been able to eat all morning for fear of exploding like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, instead of having my usual lunch of whatever baguette is least revolting in the canteen and a large packet of salt and vinegar crisps, instead I popped out to Sainsbury's and got myself a pot of fruit salad. I can feel my heart and arteries protesting as I type... I don't usually treat them like this.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Byte: Mask of the Betrayer

I'm playing through the Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion at the moment, since I've already completed Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (Manchester United 0) and I don't really want to get sucked back into Warcraft until the new expansion comes out (though I am quite tempted to take a look at some of the Hallow's End content, if only to get another Hallowed Wand that will allow me to transform party members into plaguebats or zombies).

I have a bit of an odd habit with RPG games. Because I'm basically the human equivalent of a five week old kitten, with an attention span to match, I like starting to play with things much more than seeing them through to a definitive conclusion, so it probably won't surprise you to hear that I've started playing most of the RPGs in my collection about thirty times each with different characters, but only rarely have I ever troubled the concluding couple of hours of them. (Baldur's Gate and the original Neverwinter Nights - plus its expansions - being rare exceptions)

Unsurprisingly, I started Mask of the Betrayer with about four different characters over the last week, which is probably testament to the fact that the first hour isn't as mind-numbingly dull as Irenicus's Dungeon in Baldur's Gate II (not that this ever stopped me from starting Baldur's Gate II two dozen times). That's not to say it's particularly interesting or exciting, just that it's passably enjoyable enough while I experiment with trying to find a decent combination of character classes that make my player character self-sufficient enough not to have to rest to recover their hit points every thirty steps.

Because Mask of the Betrayer is for Epic (i.e. Level 20-30 characters), it's rather on the hardcore side, meaning that you've really got to have a character that can wear heavy armour and hit things very hard, or be such a killer spellcaster that things will die pretty much as soon as you look at them, before they get into melee range and take you to pieces because you have no hit points and a poor armour class.

The Bard/Red Dragon Disciple I imported from my original NWN2 game didn't quite have the chops to cut it (a little light on spell power and hit points), thanks to the +2 level adjustment of being Drow. Trying to take on three or four level 20 spirit bears when you're only Level 17 is a bit much... So I restarted a couple of times until I settled on a combination I first tried and enjoyed in the original Neverwinter Nights - Fighter/Rogue. The Fighter levels give you the hit points and all the combat feats, whereas the Rogue levels give you lots of skill points, so you can disable traps (very important), open locks (less important, but still very useful) and top up your Diplomacy and Lore skills, so you have more conversation options and don't have to waste any money (or spell slots of NPCs) identifying high-end equipment. The only thing you really lack for true self-sufficiency is healing spells, but that's what you have health potions and healing kits for.

As for the game itself, I'm not really that far into it, but it is nice to get away from the Sword Coast, as the Forgotten Realms are a rather large place, and frankly, it's about time we got to see more of it. Not that this really makes a huge difference in the visual look of the game - the difference is more down to the politics and peoples of the region - especially the conflict and rivalry between the Rashemi and the Thayans. The cast (so far, at least) is also a little more untypical than the average computer-RPG, with a Red Wizard, a mind-reading Hagspawn and a death-obsessed Half-Celestial just for starters. They're a pretty serious bunch, (i.e. as straight-laced as a US Marine Corps Drill Sergeant's boots) but that's not necessarily a bad thing, assuming you found Grobnar and Co. as annoying as I did. It's a little disappointing that the game retreads a fair bit of ground covered by the first Neverwinter Nights expansion, Shadows of Undrentide, as there's a lot of plane-hopping going on to the Plane of Shadow, which just seems to be an excuse to use monochrome colour palettes that help disguise the continuing problems with the graphics engine.

The 3D camera in particular remains a hateful, schizophrenic thing - not knowing whether to be so sluggish as to totally kill your frame rate, or whether to be so overly sensitive that the merest touch of the mouse sends your view spinning through several hundred degrees. Graphics performance is barely improved over the original, and is shamed comprehensively by more sumptuous engines, such as the Episode 2-revamped Source. And the less said about the truly hideous and unfriendly GUI, the better...

It's still a bit early to call on the quality of the story and plot, but so far things look a little more promising, if anything thanks to the slightly more sober tone. The Forgotten Realms might be a weird and wonderful place - but I think they overplayed a lot of characterisation and quirkiness in the original. This seems a little more serious and is more in context of the harsh, unforgiving and tense history of the region the game takes place in. Like the original Neverwinter Nights before it, I can see myself completing the expansion pack long before I complete the main campaign of the game it spawned from, though thanks to the extended patching, I may actually go back to the original campaign and finish off the last act, just for completeness sake.

So, overall, it's okay. Not super-spectacular, but not super-bad either. If only they could sort out the graphics engine, I could imagine myself playing it a lot more. As it is, it's still got some way to go before it supplants Knights of the Old Republic as my favourite single-player RPG.