Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Byte: Star Wars: The Old Republic - The Emperor's New Clothes?

Given that I'm on holiday and that I've had a bit of free time, I've spent the last couple of days playing Star Wars: The New Republic. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's going to use the "Emperor's New Clothes" line in the coming weeks and months about The Old Republic. I haven't quite made my mind up about the game yet, but the obvious one-liner is that it's the bastard love child of World of Warcraft and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Given that these are two of my top five games ever made, by rights, The Old Republic should be the end of my social life and career. But somehow, I'm not convinced quite yet...

Bioware's big claim for The Old Republic is that it's supposedly a game-changer for the MMORPG genre, in that it's resolutely story-based and no expense has been spared in the production. Every single line is voice-acted and the experience is undoubtedly cinematic with interactive cutscenes and set pieces, but the question for me is, does this make it a better game? More on that later...

Here's where I am so far: in the last two days of play I've rolled a Bounty Hunter and a Jedi Knight and levelled them up to level 12 and level 11, respectively. It should be said at this point that the Bounty Hunter/Imperial Agent starting area on Hutta is fairly terrible. Dull, ugly, not much variety in terms of enemies or scenery, it's a fairly depressing place to spend your first half dozen or so hours in the game. While that's more to do with the planet itself than the game engine (which is impressive for an MMO - at its best, it's really quite pretty and expansive indeed, not nearly to the level of Skyrim of course, but the game engine is a quite massive step up for those familiar with WoW) - I'd question the decision of the designers to have you start one of the more iconic character classes on such a horrible little muckball. Tython, the Jedi Knight/Jedi Consular starting planet is much prettier by comparison, so it's a bit of a shame that it takes ten levels for you to earn your lightsaber (in itself, wearily predictable) and that the prologue is beset by the main enemies you fight (the ludicrously named "Flesh Raiders", which sounds like a rejected Russ Meyer film title) lack variety and are spectacularly tedious.

I'm not convinced by the presentation, either. The cutscenes are obviously given a greater level of graphical fidelity than the main game engine, so while the story cutscenes (which take place in instanced Story areas, so you don't get munched by mobs in the meantime) are immersive and quite well done, the biggest issue I have with them is that the time you spend watching the cutscene is time you could really be spending doing something productive in the game. At least the cutscenes can be subtitled and are skippable, so if you're a very swift reader like myself, you can read the exposition, rather than listen to it being drawled over in Star Warsy mock-British accents. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for story in MMOs. One of the key things I play World of Warcraft for is the story and the world lore. But the game doesn't try and force it down your throat - you can take it at your own pace and access as much detail as you like. I suppose, in modern Star Wars style, The Old Republic is caught up a little bit in its own gravitas, by focusing on delivering an "experience" rather than just being a game to play.

It's easy to see why, because mechanically speaking, The Old Republic isn't really pushing any boundaries. Combat is an MMOtastic blend of cooldown management and quick-button mashing (just like WoW, then) and if you look too closely at the ability descriptions, you can see the class balancing at work. That is, all the powers are essentially identical in effect, they just have different animations. So while, as a Bounty Hunter, you can do pretty much everything that the Bounty Hunter in the Deceived trailer can (only in rather more crappy armour), somehow it feels a little empty. Again, this is more of a criticism of the genre in general than The Old Republic in particular, but if you're really trying to make the definitive statement in MMORPGs, you shouldn't really just be repackaging World of Warcraft in Jedi Robes.

This isn't to say that the game is bad. I don't think Bioware have truly created a bad game yet - an average one or two, perhaps (Neverwinter Nights, anybody?) - but I would be lying if I said at this point I was blown away by the game. I can see myself giving it a chance for a few months to see what kind of direction Bioware take it, and see how the game changes as you get characters up past level 20 and 30, but can I see myself playing it in five years time? Not really. Not unless it goes free-to-play, which I expect it (and WoW too, incidentally) will do in the next couple of years.

My most memorable experiences with the game so far have been with playing with small parties in Flashpoints - the story-based instanced missions - which are effectively The Old Republic's dungeons. Having smaller groups for instances (with gaps able to be filled by the surprisingly effective AI Companions), makes the dungeon content more accessible to everyone and the Social Points system actively rewards you for not playing the game solo. Obviously, it's early days yet for the game and I've not played any of the PvP content yet, but at this point, if there's one thing that's going to keep me motivated to play the game, it's going to be the flashpoints, because the world design isn't open enough to really reward exploration for the sake of sightseeing and the story so far isnt doing anything beyond what I'd expect of a Star Wars game - it's diverting rather than utterly compelling - doing enough to keep me interested without totally grabbing me by the lapels and forcing me to want to sit down and play.

So is The Old Republic a game changer for the MMORPG genre? Not from what I've seen. Not by a long shot. Is it a failure? Again, no - with the amount of polish and backing from Bioware and EA, The Old Republic will be a success, at least in the short term, though that's not to say that it's bug or glitch-free. Also, reports of the horrific server queues (2 hours plus) experienced by some players are not what you'd want to be hearing about a game in launch week. I've not experienced any queues myself - the PVE server I'm on isn't completely barren, but has a healthy population to be getting into groups easily, without having to wait to get onto the server. I'd say that it's an interesting experiment in terms of exploring how to tell stories in MMOs, but I think that the storytelling emphasis has gone too far. Players play games to be in control, not to watch cutscenes. There's a balance to be struck somewhere in telling a personalised story and allowing the player to do stuff without having to wait for hours and hours of exposition to play itself out. Star Wars is at its best not when people are sitting (or standing) around mumbling incoherently about midichlorians or the Living Force, hokey religions or ancient weapons, but when the Tibanna Gas hits the fan and the action starts and doesn't stop for half an hour.

I'll be interested to see what happens to the game over the next six months, particularly if they do something with the obligatory, godawful standard GUI (for Yoda's sake, someone show them the Bartender mod for WoW!), and how Bioware reacts to what I expect will be pretty vociferous feedback on how they should improve the game. I'll give the game a few months, but with WoW's next expansion around the corner (which I can't say I'm too fussed about, frankly) and Guild Wars 2 due next year (which I am most certainly fussed about!), The Old Republic's got its work cut out to keep its head above the murky waters of Hutta's polluted swamps... I'm calling it here and now: Free-to-play within two years, three at most.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Byte: Five days in Skyrim

I think I'm going to have to re-write my Top 5 favourite videogames. I've stuck in over 120 hours in the last month on the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Skyrim and it's only now I really feel that I could really go about reviewing it.

Obviously, a game this big is not going to be as flawlessly polished as a single-player game with an eight hour, linear campaign. Some people are quoting Skyrim as having at least 300 hours of unique gameplay for a single campaign, and I can well believe it. I've got over 120 hours logged on Steam playing it, and I've just finished the main storyline quest threads (the defeat of Alduin and the Liberation of Skyrim), and while I've completed about 50 side-quest chains, I've not finished any of the main faction quests (Companions, Dark Brotherhood, Thieves Guild, etc), and despite having finished the main storyline quests (and just in time, given that Star Wars: The Old Republic goes live in a couple of days), I'm still motivated to keep playing. In the 120-odd hours of game time so far I've experienced some spectacular bugs - from random crashes to desktop, dragons that don't know which direction they should be flying in, purple placeholders instead of real textures, giants launching mobs into orbit with a swing of their warhammer, and many, many more.

The key to the success of any game isn't whether it's buggy or not, but whether the bugs deter you from playing or not. As with an old favourite of mine, Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines, Skyrim's bugs and glitches don't kill my desire to play the game. They're annoying, for sure, but I'm always straight back, clicking at the shortcut on the desktop to launch the game again, always wanting more frosty, Nordic fun, punching dragons in the face.

The thing I really love about the Elder Scrolls RPG system is that the character classing doesn't really limit your options to a single character class. So my PC character (with whom I've stuck in the vast majority of playing hours - though I've dabbled with the 360 version as well, which is likewise awesome) is almost a Baldur's Gate style multi-class Fighter-Mage-Thief, given that he's specialising in Heavy Armour, Archery, One-handed weapons and Destruction Magic. He's also a world-class Enchanter and Blacksmith, and a decent lockpicker and sneak. Now that my character is knocking about in the mid-to-late level 40s, I'm mildly surprised (after the utterly broken level-scaling in Oblivion) that I'm still able to compete fairly with scaled enemies in the game world. One thing I like to do is imagine the conversation my character has with dragons as they battle; my character fully clad in Dragonbone armour.

"Hoy, Dov! I'm wearing your Mum! And now I'm going to punch you to death!"

I was pretty fond(ish) of Oblivion (despite its many, many flaws), but the changes to the levelling and the addition of a Fallout-style perks system has really improved the character-customisation aspects of the game. Skyrim doesn't restrict your choices of what skills you can level up - whatever you use the most, you end up specialising in - so you can become a genuine Jack-of-all-trades if you so choose. It's one way of giving the player genuine freedom in terms of play style, and not only that, it works: a heavy armour-wearing ninja-assassin-sneak-thief is a viable possibility, if you're willing to put in the time earning the necessary skills.

One thing that's surprised me, looking at the Steam Achievement stats, is that less than 20% of the player base have had their characters get married. Now, I don't necessarily believe that responsible adults should get married as a matter of course, but in game terms, it's a no-brainer of a decision, given that your spouse opens a shop earning you a tidy profit of 100 septims a day. And also, why would you NOT want to marry Lydia? (Note to trolls: DON'T answer that in the comments... I have a Daedric Sword with 32 bonus points of fire damage...)

It's difficult to know where to start when trying to talk about Skyrim and just how good it is. It's graphically one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played, with stunning scenery, handsome NPCs (Hello, Hroki! Hello, Fastred!) and it's just as pretty at night as it is during the day, if not more so. The aurorae you get to see at night while wandering in the high north are spectacularly good. There are also some lovely set pieces, such as the taking of cities or forts during the Skyrim civil war, as well as some challenging random encounters (it's always fun when a cave bear turns up in the of a dragon battle!), but what I like the most is that there's genuine variety in the quests. Your interaction with the game world isn't limited to killing other people. On the contrary, you can help people find true love or help solve murder cases, deliver messages or carry out errands... the game world is just so rich and diverse and all the better for it. The open worldliness of Oblivion always felt a little directionless, to me. In Skyrim there's always something interesting lurking around a corner. There's just so much out there to be found and played with; and yet, even though I've completed the main "save the world" and "save the Nords" quest threads, I still don't feel like I've seen everything the game has to offer. The flexibility in the character customisation is enticing in the sheer amount of play styles the game can offer you. I've discovered 17 different Shouts, (including - SPOILER WARNING! - the one that calls in your own personal close air support dragon to sort out anyone who's giving you too much trouble) though I haven't really played about with most of them in combat yet. When you can Shout people off the top of towers and watch them ragdoll pathetically down the side of a mountain to their deaths, it's not really motivating you to try out all the others...

I think the game I've put most hours into (barring World of Warcraft) over the last couple of years is Dragon Age: Origins (171 hours, according to my Steam stats). I can easily imagine that being doubled in Skyrim before I start being bored with it. Skyrim is such a compelling game world that I'm even dreaming about it - a sure sign of dangerous levels of obsession. There's just so much more I still want to do, even with my 100+ hours main character. It's not even about getting the "achievements" - that kind of thing doesn't make me want to play. No, I like setting my own targets, such as topping out skill stats in all of my main "class" skills - so in the case of Cathal, my fighter-mage-thief, I want 100 in Archery, Destruction Magic, One-Handed Weapons, Heavy Armour, Enchanting, Smithing, Sneak and Lockpicking. As leader of the Thieves Guild, one "achievement" I do actually quite want is to restore the Thieves Guild to its former prosperity. (Incidentally, if you are playing a Thief/Assassin type character, make sure you do the Nightingales questline as soon as possible - the armour you get for it is awesome - not just in terms of stats; aesthetically it's fabulous.) It seems only fair that under my leadership, though by "leadership" I actually mean "doing all the jobs that Vex and Delvin can't be arsed to do themselves"... after all, I sold my soul to Nocturnal in order to oust Mercer Frey, so I might as well get the Thieves Guild up and running. And then once my Sneak skills are up to scratch, I can make a start on the Dark Brotherhood jobs.

I also want to own fully upgraded houses in all the Skyrim holds that I can (I already have houses in Whiterun, Riften and Windhelm) and give legendary dragonbone armour to all my housecarls. There are just so many things I still have to do. So I guess I better stop writing and just do it...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bark: A final Project Werewolf update



Big thanks to everyone who donated to my MoSpace page or gave me cash in person to support a very good cause. All in all, I raised £123, which is a whole £23 (or 23%, statistics fans - not adjusted for inflation!) better than last year. I'm hoping to raise even more next year, potentially by looking even more ridiculous and outlandish.

The Shaving Of The Mo was met with a mixed reception at my school. While some claimed I look far younger without the Mo, lots of people also said it really suited me and that I should have kept it. Of course, the deciding opinion was that of my girlfriend, who only tolerated it because it was to raise money for charity. She'd chuck me out of the house if I even tried to keep it permanently. Either that or shave it off in my sleep (possibly with my eyebrows as well). So I'm back to being (occasionally) clean-shaven. I don't miss the itching of the facial fungus, but I do miss the opportunity of looking enigmatic and wise when the occasion arose to stroke my Mo thoughtfully whenever I was asked a question...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bark: An elegant facial hair, from a more civilised age

Movember is coming to a close, and it's time to get the begging bowl out.

Project Werewolf is progressing nicely (since I don't quite have the chops for a full-on Captain Price SAS handlebar), and I'd like to direct everyone to my MoSpace page if they would care to donate a little money to a really good cause.

My Mo is much more fearsomely bushy than last year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Byte: For the love of Lydia

It seems like I'm not the only one with a soft spot for Skyrim's Lydia. Herr Walker's tragic account of her untimely demise in his game is both touching, yet mildly disturbing.

John, my shield-brother, I feel your pain. And then I reach for the reload button.

Lydia, my love, I would never let such a terrible thing happen to you... not after all the effort and expense I went to enchanting your weapons and armour...

Byte: Don't cross the memes!

I suppose this was inevitable, given all the Chuck Norris jokes that happen in the General and Trade channels.

Chuck Norris vs. WoW - the advert.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Byte: Skyrim thoughts

Holy crap, this game is good. (Here be spoilers, by the way...)

I have to admit, I'd been tempted to wait until the price dropped to £20 or so before getting it, but I'm glad I went for the Day One purchase. I liked Oblivion quite a lot, but I was only ever really able to play it by avoiding levelling up like the plague, so to avoid the spectacularly broken auto-scaling system that levelled up enemies to keep you "challenged" - that is, dead at the slightlest provocation. Skyrim is much more like Fallout 3, in that if you go too far off the beaten track, there'll be a giant or something ready to hand your head back to you on a platter, but if you follow some kind of sensible progression, going through the main story and not straying too far into the spectacularly gorgeous wilderness, you should be okay for the most part.

But I'm rambling already. I suppose I should start at the beginning. If you've played Morrowind and Oblivion, it's probably not going to come as a surprise to find out that you start out the game as a prisoner. You're just about to get executed (for crossing the border into Skyrim at an inopportune time and walking into a bit of local trouble and being mistaken for a rebel) when suddenly a big, scaly deus ex machina turns up and starts gobbing fire over the pesky Legion guards that were (quite literally) about to knock your block off. In the confusion, you get to escape, notionally picking a side for who's going to walk you through the tutorial quest. In the opening sequence, the first thing that strikes you is just how beautiful the game is. The character animations (especially the lip-sync) is a whole lot more naturalistic compared to Oblivion, and the dragon is fearsomely impressive. But more on dragons later. The voice acting is improved, too, though a lot of NPCs do tend to run out of new lines of dialogue all too quickly.

Once you escape Helgen and get out into Skyrim proper, it's the sheer scale of the game that takes your breath away. Oblivion was pretty, and so was Fallout 3 in a post-apocalyptic kind of way, but Skyrim is a whole order of magnitude prettier. If you see a mountain on the horizon, you can walk there (at least in theory), but the standout feature for me, graphically, is the water. The rivers. The waterfalls. The streams in Whiterun. The lake outside Riften... The water effects in Skyrim are absolutely stunning. And the weather effects aren't bad, either. Snow. Fog. Rain. Mist. Blizzards on the top mountains. It's all there and just adds to the sense of immersion.

If you decided to follow the story quests rather than just play with the game world after finishing the tutorial, the first city you'll come to is Whiterun. You have to take a message to the local Jarl (the ruler of the city and local area) warning him about the dragon that smacked the shit out of Helgen, and obviously, the Jarl uses this as an opportunity to basically turn you into his latest dogsbody. Within a few quests, you'll be facing off with that very dragon with a few dozen local guardsmen to help. As set pieces go, it's pretty fucking spectacular. I was so taken aback I forgot to take screenshots. After this encounter, you get your first "Shout" and find out that you're "Dragonborn", meaning that you have a natural ability to speak the language of dragons, which obviously means you should immediately go forth and start killing them and stealing their souls. Well, okay then. If I must...

The greatest benefit of completing this quest is that the Jarl of Whiterun appoints you "Thane" of the city and assigns you Lydia, a "Housecarl", who I have been steadfastly trying to keep alive, given my terrible record in Fallout 3 with getting my companions and assistants killed. I'm really rather fond of Lydia, as she is tough, loyal, a good fighter, and very forgiving when I accidentally shoot her with an arrow or set her on fire with a spell. She still "carries my burdens" without complaint. (I really hope that's a euphemism, given that she has an "owned" bed in my - now fully furnished - house in Whiterun). She was vital in helping me defeat a dragon on the way up the 7000 steps to see the Greybeards at their base, conveniently placed on the top of a remote mountain (hence the 7000 steps - and no, I didn't count them, but it's a bloody long way). I think I may try to marry her. AND IN THE GAME! (*coughs*)

My character is now up to level 15, and is half decent with a bow, heavy armour and single-handed weapons. I'm also experimenting with dual-wielding destruction spells (perhaps an odd choice for someone primarily speccing as a Warrior). The Fallout 3 style Perks are a nice improvement to the levelling system compared to Oblivion. All skills contribute to you levelling up, so you can get to be a real all-rounder, being skilled in everything from Alchemy to Smithing or Lockpicking to Two-Handed Weapons and everything in-between.

I'm loving the game so far. It's not without the odd bug or glitch, but I've found it much more compelling than Oblivion. I can see myself playing this more than both Dragon Age games, and (according to Steam) I've sunk upwards of 200 hours into those. I could probably put 100 hours in Skyrim on just one character. It's vast, beautiful and utterly compelling - a perfect antidote to the scourge of the modern, military first person shooter. And thank Akatosh for that.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Byte: THERE IS ONLY WAR!

This post merits both a YAY and an EPIC FAIL, for two slightly different reasons. I had Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine pre-ordered on Xbox 360 well over a year ago, because I knew it would be right up my street of man-shooting, Ork-bashing, daemon-rending unbridled slaughter, with ridiculously macho metal shoulderpads and slightly fascist overtones. Before I go any further, I should say at this point HERE BE SPOILERS. Spoilers as big as an Ork Warboss's teeth...

Unfortunately, before I could really put more than a few hours into it, last weekend my 160GB Xbox 360 Elite died an ignominous death, by not actually quite dying (no dramatic red ring of death, or anything like that) but one evening my lady turned it on to watch a DVD and while it made all the right noises and booted up, it steadfastly refused to output video or audio, despite me resetting the video output to default (twice) and trying both the HDMI cable and the component AV output ports.

So instead of forking out £200 I don't have on a new Xbox 360, instead I picked up a PC copy of Space Marine, since that was a slightly cheaper option. I've ploughed through the single player campaign in a little over six or seven hours, but had a rather nice time. Some reviewers (quite rightly) have critisized it for being rather on the conservative side, particularly in the plot and storytelling, which is really rather predictable and Captain Titus (while quite nicely voiced by Mark Strong) suffers from being a thoroughly dull protagonist, evidently from Dullsville, Macragge. The final battle with the Chaos lord, Nemeroth, is also rather an anti-climax, given that it's QTE-tastic, which basically sucks all the real skill out of it - the boss battle with the Ork Warboss Grimskull is much more challenging and rewarding. The epilogue is also rather an anti-climax, with Titus being (somewhat predictably) being taken into custody by the Inquisition because of his seeming resistance to the Warp... There are also other annoyances - it would be nice if enemy NPCs had more than half a dozen lines of dialogue... Hearing Orks yell "More humans to kill!" or "Kill those Space Marines!" for the two hundredth time in the space of two hours gets rather tiresome. The Chaos hordes show a similar lack of verbal dexterity too, though at least you don't have to put up with them for so long, given that Chaos forces only show up within the last couple of hours of the game.

But, BUT... if Space Marine has a saving grace, it's this: the combat. It gets a little relentless at times (particularly since the story exposition isn't terribly interesting or well handled), but by the Emperor, this game makes you feel like you can kick the ass of an Ork horde by yourself. This is mainly because of one fact: you can. Lots of people initially said Space Marine would be Warhammer 40,000: Gears of War. While I see the comparison, they couldn't be more wrong. Space Marine is only superficially like Gears of War. Sure, they have the big guns, shoulder pads and token female characters, but Space Marines don't need a cover system. You can hide behind crates if you must, but a true Space Marine just kicks ass bigger, better and faster than anyone else.

What I really love is the melee system. You can really be aggressive and bash your way through massive groups of enemies if you know what you're doing with the combo system. The melee attack-stun-execution system is very well balanced, and it drives the whole game, given that you don't have regenerating health (though you do have regenerating shields, Halo 1 stylée) and if you want to heal up, you have to get close and dirty, stunning and executing enemies. It's visceral and satisfying and in many cases it's tempting to forego the Power Axe in favour of the Chainsword because it has better execution animations and it's slightly easier to chain together stun-execute combos. The Thunder Hammer is a thing of joy, though the downside of using that is you're only able to use your pistol and Bolter as ranged weapons.

Some (OXM 360 Magazine amongst others) have described the ranged weapons as rather clunky and uninspiring... Personally, I don't have that much of an issue with them. I actually rather like the simplicity of a Bolter Pistol & Chainsword combo, as while it may not be the most powerful combination of weapons, it is the most naturalistic for senior Astartes in the Warhammer 40,000 lore. The Stalker bolter and Storm bolter (the latter of which only makes an appearance in the final chapter of the single player campaign) are both lovely. I'm less convinced about the Melta gun, which I found thoroughly useless and I wasn't too fond of the Vengeance launcher, given that it is quite fiddly to use, but don't seem to have that much in terms of stopping power. The Lascannon is great (particularly in the set pieces you get to use it against Ork Nobs), though ammo for it is a little scarce for you to truly make the most of its power and the few occasions you get your mitts on heavy plasma cannons or autocannons are real highlights.

One complaint I've also seen is that you don't get to use the jump pack enough. You get to use it in three chapters out of the eighteen in the story, and I think that's about right, since it's ridiculously overpowered. The way in which the use of it is taken away from you on each occasion is quite contrived, but it makes sense in terms of game balance. The way weapon and ability unlocks (such as Fury and Marksman modes) are handled is very well done and the enemies also scale well. The challenge of the game increases signficantly once the primary protagonists switch from Orks to Chaos, but this is also well handled, as by then you should have gotten to grips with the right tactics and will have unlocked the superior Fury mode, which basically turns you into a rampaging angel of death, if you select your weapons and use the melee combos effectively.

While it's a shame that Space Marine doesn't really try to push the boundaries of the genre, or even really make the most of its source material (you can't help but feel that Relic wanted to make a "banker" title to make money and prove they could develop games in this genre before attempting something really ambitious), it's still a very solid game and an enjoyable enough way of wiling away a couple of lazy autumn weekend afternoons. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, maybe it is, but hey - there's always the inevitable sequel to look forward to...

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Byte: You are dead

YOU ARE DEAD.

That's a message that you get to see a lot whenever you play ARMA: Cold War Assault - the game previously known as Operation Flashpoint.

I've written quite extensively about Operation Flashpoint before, not least a review of the Xbox port of the game that was released way back in 2005 (itself over four years after the original PC release) but thanks to Bohemia Interactive re-releasing it as a standalone game in the last week or so (and me being on holiday with quite a bit of time to kill) I've been getting reacquainted with it. Sadly, ARMA: Cold War Assault is missing the rather splendid Red Hammer add-on campaign (though it does include Resistance), but even after a good ten years (and more) since the original release, at £3.49 on Steam, it's still terrific value for money.

Considering that the game is now over ten years old, it still stands up rather well. Thanks to its scale, it was never exactly what you'd call a looker, even back in 2001 - like another long-standing favourite of mine that I'm replaying again (Deus Ex) - the graphics and the animation were always on the rather shoddy side, but it's not as much of a barrier to playing the game as you might think. This is war, after all: it's supposed to be dull, muddy and ugly...

What makes the game special is its sheer brutality. This isn't a military-themed FPS like Call of Duty that mollycoddles you with regenerating health and ammo that you can collect faster than you can fire it... oh no. Operation Flashpoint (sorry, Bohemia, I can't get used to the new name) will make you wait ten or fifteen minutes for you to get into the action and kill you DEAD-DEAD-DEAD before you've even fired a shot if you let your attention wander for even half a second. Oh, and then, just to add insult to injury, the miserly save game allowance will make you replay the majority of the level, not the single encounter you just stuffed up.

But you know what? The game's all the better for it. I think every single 12 year old who plays Call of Duty: Black Ops (just because they think Call Of Duty is the BEST GAME EVAR because it's the most widely hyped) should be strapped to a chair and be made to play Operation Flashpoint without breaks for at least twelve hours. They should do this for two reasons.

1) So that they release that real life and real combat with firearms doesn't have a quicksave or checkpoint system, and

2) So that they get some understanding that war isn't the exciting, glamorous, thrill-ride all the other FPS games they've played makes them think it is.

Most videogames try to empower the player - sometimes to ludicrous degrees. Take COD4, for example - where you can recover from bullet wounds simply by hiding behind a door or under a table for a few seconds. Operation Flashpoint doesn't do this. Not by a long shot. It makes the player acutely aware of their vulnerability and mortality - and furthermore, it follows through on the consequences of making a mistake in a way that's almost unthinkable in games published today. There's no quicksave or quickload, so instead of only losing a few minutes of progress, you might have to replay half an hour or more of a level (depending on when you used your one precious save per mission, or when the auto-retry save point is set). So when you factor in the variability of the AI and the fact that the outcomes of each individual enemy contact can have vastly different outcomes for your squad, depending on the casualties you incur at key points of the mission, a ten minute mission might take you over an hour to complete, after all the retries, during which you learn the correct tactics to use and how to approach an objective properly according to the terrain. This is no linear, corridor shooter: there are so many variables in play that even with the same initial conditions at the start of a mission and any subsequent replays, there's no real way of predicting what will happen.

I can't imagine many 12 year old COD-kiddies being able to stick it out for even a handful of missions. But they should be made to play it - if only to realise that true success has to be worked for and takes skill, persistence and not an inconsiderable amount of luck. What worries me about the "achievements" ethic of modern videogame design is that success only really requires persistence - you put in the time, you get the unlocks and then even people who are more inherently skilled than you (but don't have as much time to play the game) don't stand a chance because they don't have the unlocks that kill everyone on the map without the chance of fighting back. The vast majority of modern game design (especially in multiplayer) rewards sheer bloody-minded persistence over skill, which is why you'll never see me playing COD4 online, but might find me knocking about on an Unreal Tournament 2004 server.

I often wonder about the social messages videogames give our young folk - whether intentionally or not. In my (I suppose rather quaint and old-fashioned) view, anything that sends a message of consequence-free failure and gives reward for simply sticking with something rather than actually trying to get better at it, is not something that should be applauded or encouraged. Though to be fair, I don't think it's just videogames that do this- I think the vast majority of our entertainment media (be it film, games or TV) does the public a massive disservice by assuming that because people have greater choice now, things need to be more instantly engaging, otherwise people will simply switch off or turn over to do something else. All this does is breed a generation with pathetically short attention spans and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's no real reason to assume that teenagers twenty years ago (such as myself) are so different from teenagers from today. I just think that people are just more likely to reach for an excuse these days. Lord knows that if some of the kids I taught put half the effort into doing their work that they did for finding excuses for their lack of effort and poor behaviour, they wouldn't need to make excuses, because they'd be too busy to be bored.

This is why I think all these COD-kiddies, used to easy success and reward and no consequence failure, would be better people if they had to sit down to play something like Operation Flashpoint for a day. Our failures - what they cost us, and how we rebound from them - tell us about the kind of person we are. One thing that I think has been lost in modern society is that sometimes it's okay to fail - that we will learn more from a hard-fought failure than an easy win. People are so petrified of failure these days that the producers of mainstream entertainment (not to mention our providers of mass news media) are afraid to challenge people on every level - from their preconceptions and beliefs to what they might find interesting and entertaining. My fear is that if we (as a society and civilization) lose the ability to challenge ourselves in meaningful ways, humanity will stagnate and regress into tribalism and extremism - and over the past decade or two I've seen some signs that this is already happening, with the rise of religious extremism and the rise of the fear of anyone being seen to do anything that might be construed as being offensive to anyone (I don't just mean political correctness, but that's a large part of it).

Real life, for the vast majority of people, isn't a high-tech, lightning-paced, glamorous rollercoaster of easy success and cheap thrills. Instead, it's dull, difficult, mundane and packed with more failures and defeats than victories. Life inevitably has more losers than winners, but that's not to say that failure can't be rewarding, especially if it teaches you something. And that's the moral of Operation Flashpoint in a nutshell for me. It's hard - by goodness, it's hard - but all those failures and learning experiences help make the rare victories all the sweeter.

YOU ARE DEAD.

RETRY OR EXIT?

[clicks RETRY]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bark: Culture vs. Anti-culture

It's been a little over a week since the start of the England Riots, and still the aftermath rumbles on with "Big Broken Society" Dave and Milidum spouting all sorts of rubbish about "moral collapse" and "knee-jerk gimmicks".

One thing that caught my eyes and ears was the Newsnight discussion with David Starkey - if you only caught the out of context condemnation of Starkey's "the whites have become black" line, I recommend you watch the entire debate.

While some have described the comment as racist, I'm not so sure - at least, I don't think Starkey meant it as derogatory to black people. I would actually agree with Starkey in the sense that in some echelons of our society, "white" (in other words, traditionally British) culture is being supplanted by "black" gangsta culture, imported over from America and the Carribean. I use the term culture rather loosely here.

I think the mistake that was made in the debate on Newsnight was to try and label one culture as being inherently "right" and the other "wrong" (the implication being that Starkey thought that "black" culture was wrong - again, I'm not sure this is the case - there's plenty of room for the possibility that both cultures are rubbish), rather than try to understand why this shift has happened.

Milidum put it down to the "me first" culture and talked a lot "responsibility" and "inequality" without really saying anything we didn't already know twenty years ago. Society has always contained inequality, and if anything, the gap between top and bottom has been getting wider since Thatcher came to power in 1979 and 13 years of Labour government didn't do a damn thing to address it effectively. The poorest sections of society have historically always been largely ignored by the political system, mainly because there's not enough votes in it. Instead, the Labour government threw them bones in the form of benefits and tax credits, hoping it would paper over the cracks.

Unfortunately, they forgot one key psychological aspect of the human psyche: something that has not been earned has no value. So the poor and the forgotten were given enough money to scrape together a TV, a Blackberry or iPhone and internet access, but weren't made to get off their arses for it. With this wonderful technology, paid for by the state, they got fed a diet of TV, films, games and internet sites glorifying violence and materialism - they saw a better life in a bigger TV screen, and the internet allowed them (with the help of Twitter and Blackberry Messenger) to run rings around the government and the police for a few days - a whole country shaken to its core by a few thousand immoral, self-centred thugs with just enough brain power to be trouble.

I think it's telling that the majority of the looters went for TVs and consumer electronics, rather than jewelry. It tells you what's valued by society when silicon is more prized than gold (Whoever said money can't buy happiness clearly hadn't heard of flat-screen plasma TVs).

"How did this happen?" ask the social commentators and politicians - I can only throw in my two pence - there's no reason why my theory should be any more correct or wrong than that of the "experts". It doesn't do any good labelling parts of our society "broken" or "sick" and then beating them with a big stick (such as the proposals to remove whole families from social housing and stop their benefits if a family member was part of the looting) - how does that create a more equitable society?

People in so-called sink estates look up to the pimps, drug dealers and gangsters because they have everything that the media in our society tells them is desireable - money, drugs, guns, cars, women, power. By comparison, people in real authority (politicians, police, teachers, doctors - the people who should be real role models for our society) are made to look weak and ineffectual by the news media and the government falls over backwards to not offend anyone rather than show authority.

"British" culture has become so anodyne and uninspiring that it shouldn't be any wonder that the people who need the most help and direction in our society look to people willing to provide them with a vision - even if it is destructive, amoral and anti-social. I can tell I'm getting old and increasingly intolerant, because I can't help feeling some sort of nostalgia for my formative years under Thatcher - a lot of what she did was short-sighted, socially devisive and destructive, but you know that there's no way in hell she'd put up with shit like this...

This weekend I visited Chartwell, Winston Churchill's house in Kent. Now he was a leader - a unifier - exactly the kind of person we need now. Instead, what have we got? A man who couldn't unify a couple of magnets and a man who couldn't inspire his way out of a wet paper bag. Maker preserve us...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Byte: Beyond Good and Evil

As part of my self-set homework for this summer's holiday, I've set myself a few targets. I'm acutely aware that my completion rate, even for games that I really like, is pretty bloody woeful - probably only one game in five, at best.

So this summer I want to knock three (less than 1% of my total games collection) games off my "to complete" list. I'm being remarkably self-disciplined, and playing the games in order of priority, with only a bit of cocking about on World of Warcraft to form a distraction. Given that I don't have a very good track record with sticking to targets, I've tried to be realistic by setting a priority that's remotely achieveable for at least two of the games I want to complete, by tackling them in increasing order of length.

Last on the list will be The Witcher 2, which I haven't made much headway with so far - not due to a lack of enthusiasm, but because I can tell it's the kind of game that really requires a lot of singleminded dedication to get through (like its predecessor), and unless I'm on holiday, I don't have a lot of that to spare. Second on my list is a game that ranks in my all-time top 5 games, yet I never quite got around to finishing - Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In previous playthroughs I've completed about 80% of the game, but like my previous mental block with Deus Ex, I couldn't quite bring myself to finishing the game off - it's one of those games you never quite want to end. However, this summer, I really want to finish it, though I doubt I will play many of the optional missions - I'll just stick to the main story missions, any maybe play around the edges if I have time.

But the first game on my list this summer is arguably the greatest videogame ever to come out of France: Beyond Good and Evil. The long-awaited sequel's been getting some hype recently from (series designer) Michel Ancel about "needing power" beyond the current hardware generation of today's consoles, which hopefully gives some indication as to the ambition of its design. Previously, I'd played through about half the game (completing the Nutrapils Factory section) and really enjoyed it (even the stealth sections - which I traditionally find frustrating due to my chronic lack of subtlety and patience)

Currently, I'm approaching the end of the game (with only the section on the moon of Hillys to go - once I collect enough pearls for the upgrades) and even eight years after I played it for the first time, the game really stands up well, barring a few issues with the 3D camera, which veers on the side of hateful at times. I probably shouldn't say too much until I've actually finished it, but I've loved replaying the game and reacquianting myself with the excellent world and game design. Jade, Pey'j and Double H are really delightful characters. Pey'j, in particular, could be really tiresome if he'd been handled badly, but he's very well scripted and voice-acted, so ends up being quite endearing - especially in light of what happens to him halfway through the game.

In many ways, Beyond Good and Evil is a family-friendly GTA, in that it includes open-world driving elements, third-person combat and a few mini-games thrown in for good measure. The story is also simple but well-executed and engaging, and also judged for pace - since the game can be completed in under fifteen hours (even if you spend a fair amount of time cocking about in the mini-games), there's not much padding to be found (though some of the stealth sections are a bit brutal - particularly the Alpha Sections HQ and the bits in the Slaughterhouse with the insta-kill sentry guns). Overall, though, I definitely made a good decision to revisit the game - it's a real joy to play something that's had so much thought put into every element of the design - though I'll talk more about that when I've finished the game (hopefully) within the next couple of days. I'm just hoping that the finale isn't quite so anti-climactic as I found Deus Ex's, after a similar wait to finally get around to completing it...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bark: Need Another Space Administration

Don't get me wrong, NASA have done amazing work over the years, but the decision (forced on NASA by budget cuts) to mothball the Space Shuttle before they even have a next generation replacement capable of putting people is orbit is, in my opinion, a catastrophic backwards step we may later regret.

Look at this and tell me there's nothing we can learn of value from going out into Space. (And bear in mind that the flat screen monitor you're viewing it on was developed directly from technology used by the Space Shuttle programme.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bark: New look

Since I'm hopefully going to start posting a little more frequently around here from now on, I've decided to revitalise the layout and tweak the template of my blog, since I've not changed it since I first started posting on this blog, many, many years ago.

I may give the colour scheme a few more nudges in the direction of spectral frequencies that are less likely to make my (paltry) readership's eyes bleed over the course of the next week or two, but generally I quite like the new look.

Bark: If you don't ask, you don't get...

Fair play, dude.

Would now be a good time to ask for a date with Jennifer Morrison? No? Damn...

Friday, July 08, 2011

Bark: Round up

It's been a rather epic couple of weeks since I last posted. In the last ten days or so I have passed my NQT year, been told that I don't actually have Lyme disease (just some other horrible tick-borne bacterial infection), acquired the latest albums by Moby and Mogwai and signed up for two interesting looking practical art courses at Art In Action, which will be kick-starting my summer holiday in a fortnight's time.

It's hard to believe that there are only two weeks of the academic year left - and that it's now over two years since I left IBM. The time has absolutely flown by, and I don't regret the change at all. Sure, the 30% pay cut was and is increasingly painful, given the escalation of living costs at the moment, but I'm feeling much more fulfilled in my job than when I was stuck working home-alone, shunting numbers around spreadsheets for 10 hours a day. And that sense of job satisfaction is easily worth the pay cut, because there's no point being well-paid if you're miserable in your job. The holidays help too, of course. That and the fact that as a science teacher I get paid to blow shit up and play with all sorts of lovely kit and experiments. The only better job I can think of at the moment is being a pyrotechnician in a special effects company (where you get to blow shit up on an industrial scale). The other thing that's surprised me is that for a self-confessed misanthrope and borderline sociopath, I actually really like working with kids. They can be dumb and exasperating as hell sometimes, but they're never dull and they're often funny, inspired and insightful. So while I'm horribly tired and in desperate need of my summer break, I am looking forward to next year, especially since I'll be much more of a known quantity in the school.

Tomorrow I'll be in London looking for a bit of extra inspiration and more ideas to take into the classroom with me, as I'll be visiting the Royal Society Summer Science expo, which I've been looking forward to for a couple of weeks, since one of my colleagues told me about it. I'm told there's a lot of hands-on stuff, plus the opportunity to pick the brains of some of the scientists behind the research. I'm particularly looking forward to having a poke at the aurora and fundamental particles exhibitions. Fingers crossed, I'll be able to pick up a few posters and resources to decorate my lab and use in lessons. I'm guessing that the place will probably be crawling with teachers - it'll be interesting to see if I bump into any of my old PGCE cohort while I'm there...

More blogging later, but first, I need to make the most of my Friday night by doing some gaming... I can't keep my teacher brain turned on this late on a Friday. IT IS NOT PERMITTED.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bark: Every cloud has a silver lining

I've just finished collating and cross-referencing all the evidence in my NQT folder, which in my currently brain-addled, fevered and achey state has taken all afternoon (albeit interspersed with a bit of Wimbledon-watching and a trip to the supermarket for food). If they judge it by weight, I don't think I have anything to worry about. Will be nice to hand it in tomorrow. I would get seriously drunk to celebrate, but that's not a good idea considering the medication I'm on right now. I guess I'll have to make do with a nice cup of caffiene-free vanilla tea and some white chocolate instead...

Bark: Tau Day

Some people clearly need better things to get worked up about. This is the kind of thing that gives Mathematicians a bad name.

Bark: Run for cover (work)

I tend not to blog about work, for patently obvious reasons, but today is an exception, because I've actually had to take a day off due to illness (only the second day I've taken off all year). Like most teachers, I tend to go to work even if I'm feeling a little peaky (which isn't often, since sharing a school with 1500+ filthy teenagers tends to give your immune system a good workout - I really don't get ill that often anymore, compared to when I worked from home), because it's a pain in the arse setting cover work. Writing cover work is more difficult than planning a normal lesson, because there are no guarantees that the lesson will be taught by a subject specialist or even a fully qualified teacher, given that most schools these days have dedicated, full-time cover supervisors (and dedicated is the right word - I think it's a far tougher job than teaching, as you have to be ready to teach anything to anyone, for a fraction of the pay of a qualified teacher).

Having to take today off is particularly galling, because I'd normally be teaching five out of six scheduled periods - which is a hell of a lot of cover work to plan and write up. It's not ideal for anyone, really, especially the cover supervisors and the technicians that have to put together new sets of resources for my lessons. Unfortunately, there's not much choice in the matter, because I'm well beyond the point of feeling peaky.

I got bitten by a tick a couple of Saturdays ago when I was visiting Virginia Woolf's writing retreat, Monk's House, (yes, I am now officially old, if it wasn't already confirmed - I'm a member of the National Trust) and I could probably place where I picked up the little bloodsucking bastard up to within about 50 feet, since there was only one piece of long grass on the site that I walked through. I went to bed on the Saturday night not noticing anything unusual, but when I woke up on the Sunday, there the little chitinous fucker was, attached to my lower left leg. Now, as a science teacher (who, ironically, was supposed to be teaching my Year 7s about parasites today), I know ticks are disease vectors and carry all sorts of horrible bacteria of the distinctly unfriendly variety, chief among them being Borrellia Burgdorferi, the cause of Lyme Disease.

Being fairly knowledgeable about ticks, I knew how to remove it safely (that is, without leaving mouthparts or even the whole head behind) and got the little bastard off, disposed of it and disinfected the site of the bite. Given that the infection rate of Lyme disease is quite low (generally ticks need to have been feeding for more than 24 hours to pass on the bacteria), evidently I was unlucky, because last Friday I started getting secondary symptoms of Lyme disease - tightness of the muscles around the bite, headaches and some muscle stiffness (which I attributed to getting a poor night's sleep and a pollen count so high it would give me a migraine anyway). Over the weekend, however, that turned into headaches, loss of concentration, muscle and joint pain and a fever, with the skin around where I'd been bitten coming out nicely (read "horribly") with a blood-red rash. It's not uncommon for symptoms to wait a couple of weeks (or even a month) before manifesting themselves (again, something I knew after reading up about Lyme disease when I'd heard it talked about on House), so on Monday I took advantage of a gap in my timetable to get in to get in to see my GP, who told me it probably was indeed Lyme disease, gave me a blood test on the spot (the results of which I should get on Friday) and prescribed me Doxycycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic so powerful that it can be used to treat bubonic plague, MRSA and malaria.

The medicine itself has some nasty side effects, not least photosensitivity (just as well that I'm a natural sun-dodger) and instructions to not lie down for 30 minutes after taking the medicine to prevent irritation and ulceration of the gullet... It also makes me so nauseous that it's difficult to find the will to eat - and I've got two weeks of this. Though I suppose the bit that really adds insult to injury is that I've got to completely avoid alcohol while I'm taking the medicine. Great news for my liver and my waistline, maybe, but it means I can't even celebrate the end of my NQT year. I had my final assessment observation yesterday (the only reason I went into work at all - couldn't the symptoms have waited another week before really kicking in?) and it went pretty well, considering that it was a shortened lesson at the end of the day (30 minutes rather than 50, because of an early finish for the day, as our year 11s had their celebration assembly in the afternoon) and that I was running a fever and felt like crap.

Anyway, I think I've written enough for now, so I'm going to do some cover work of my own: bed covers...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Byte: Here Be Dragons

I wasn't alone this year in finding Dragon Age II a little on the disappointing side. While it had great characters and a decent enough story, the ending was anti-climactic to say the least and some was the game design was on the wrong side of lazy, with cut-and-paste dungeons galore and far too much padding in the action sequences with trash mobs. I also wasn't especially fond of the way BioWare slimmed down the RPG elements and slimmed down the talents and skills system and the inventory management - I prefer my RPGs with lots to fiddle with and customise.

So I decided to return to Dragon Age: Origins and finish my playthrough as a rogue (I previously completed it with a mage - a class that ends up being ridiculously overpowered at the end of the game - as mages should be!). My rogue is a human noble, which I basically picked because I want to be King (AND IN THE GAME!) - what can I say? Queen Anora is a cutie. Even though it's kind of like kicking a puppy while its looking up at you lovingly, the completist in me led me to exile Alistair after the Landsmeet and conscript Loghain into the Grey Wardens, simply for the irony value.

I took some slightly different routes on my play through - I sided with the clearly deranged Branka in the Anvil of the Void quest, which was a particularly tough battle, since Shale defected over to support Caridin, so I had to fight the battle with an incomplete party. Though at least the pragmatic pay-off was be that I had a squad of ridiculously tough golems to help take on the Archdemon at the finale in Denerim.

I suppose the thing I really prefer in Dragon Age: Origins compared to Dragon Age II is that the combat is much more tactical and requires careful management, even on low difficulty settings. The advanced tactics settings (provided you configure them correctly) do streamline the combat to some degree (purists can turn them off, naturally), but combat with bosses and multiple mobs can quickly get away from you if you don't keep a close eye on the health of all your characters. The other curious thing about Dragon Age is that the best party configuration isn't Warrior-heavy (unlike Baldur's Gate, say). Two mages is practically compulsory at all times (one for DPS and another for DPS/healing), with a warrior acting as a tank and a rogue acting as ranged DPS or back-stabby DPS from stealth, along with the obligatory trap-finding and locked chest opening duties. The story in Origins is also a heck of a lot more multi-layered than in Dragon Age II, though perhaps some of the characters aren't quite so well defined in Origins as they are in the sequel. The other really impressive thing in Origins is that (appropriately) all of the different origin stories for the protagonist are interesting and worth playing, with characters you meet at the beginning of the game coming back for cameos later. Some are more significant than others (especially Jowan, from the Mage origin story).

Dragon Age: Origins, in my opinion, is by far the superior RPG of the two games, both in terms of storytelling and RPG mechanics, and while it might lack some of the immediacy of the Mass Effects or the more formal fantasy setting of something like Baldur's Gate 2, it certainly makes up for it in terms of depth and execution. Here's hoping that the seemingly inevitable Dragon Age III will be more like Origins than Dragon Age II... but somehow, given the direction Bioware have been moving in lately, I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Byte: I have a need...

... a Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit.

I picked up NFS:HP about a month ago, when it was on sale for around £23 in HMV, after having my interest in the game piqued by playing it a few times on the demo pod at the GAME in Guildford, but it's only really in the last week or so that I've really started devoting a bit of play time to it. Oh man, do I regret that, because it's a terribly sexy and shiny racing game.

This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, given that it comes from the Criterion stable; home to the Burnout series - of which Burnout 3: Takedown has to rate as one of my favourite racing games ever, particularly in the wonderfully brutal multiplayer modes.

Hot Pursuit's twist is that you get to play the game from the perspective of both sides of the law - as a cop and a law-breaking street racer. The physics of the car handling modelling is spot on for an arcade racer, striking a good balance between being realistic enough to allow for proper power-sliding or drifting around corners, yet not so twitchy that the handling model will throw you off the track at the merest mistake. You're also given gadgets, such as EMPs or spike strips to help you evade capture or take down suspects - with the Seacrest Police Department missions also giving you the option of setting up road blocks or calling in helicopter support.

The game is also well balanced and the difficulty in single player mode is nicely pitched to allow a novice to progress yet still challenge a more experienced player in order to earn gold medal in each event. Interestingly, I've enjoyed the law enforcement missions more than the racer missions, perhaps because they are slightly more challenging in the win and penalty conditions. The mission and track design is solid, if perhaps a bit too familiar to Burnout 3 veterans. The gadgets do certainly liven up the missions, but broadly speaking, Hot Pursuit refines rather than innnovates.

Not that this is to say that this is necessarily a bad thing: while the game doesn't really try to introduce new game mechanics to the genre, the whole game is executed brilliantly. The only things I would criticise are the loading times, which are slightly on the tardy side and the ear-bleed soundtrack that seems de rigeur for Need For Speed games. Though given that I grew to actually quite like some of the tracks on the Need For Speed: Underground soundtrack, I live in hope that some of the tunes in Hot Pursuit might grow on me. Maybe in a year or two...

Hot Pursuit does lack the car pimping aspects of Underground (which I really enjoyed fiddling with), but at least there are plenty of cars to unlock that give the missions some good replay value. The game's also terribly good looking, the handling model is responsive and not too twitchy for my old and increasingly flabby reflexes and the bite-sized chunks of gaming (single missions last between three and six minutes) make it incredibly moreish - it's a game that on the perilous side of addictive and it's very hard to put that controller down once you've picked it up.
I've really been enjoying it - it's definitely the best arcade street racer I've played in a couple of years.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Byte: Assistant Professor

I've been meaning to write about the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, for quite a while now. Earlier today, my druid finally hit the new level cap. I almost feel a little like I cheated, given that my last level and a half of experience up to level 85 was gained almost entirely by levelling up the almost entirely superfluous secondary skill, Archeology.

I say 'entirely superfluous', but there is a certain satisfaction to flying from one corner of the world to another, digging up artefacts and fossils - and it's not like it's a shortcut compared to questing - getting the NINE MILLION XP to level up from 84 to 85 still took me a good twelve hours of playing time over the course of a couple of weeks, though you could argue that it's the no-brainer alternative to conventional questing.

I do have to admit that one of the reasons that I chose to level my character this way was that I wanted to save the majority of the Cataclysm quests until I had hit the level cap, so that I could basically rake in a massive amount of money to fund my alternate characters. My original plan was to use the money to get Sharéth her Riding skill mastery, but it wasn't necessary in the end, given that I made a shed-load of money selling Heavy Knothide Leather in the auction house, while I was pursuing Outland-vintage reputation quests in Coilfang Reservoir for the Cenarion Expedition and doing dailies on Netherwing Ledge to finally get my Onyx Netherwing Drake - a flying mount that I'd been nerd-lusting over for a good five years... After nearly three weeks's worth of daily quests, I finally earned the reputation to get it, and it was worth every second of time invested. Perhaps even more so than the hours spent in Coilfang grinding the rep (and the 1600 gold) to get my Cenarion War Hippogryph. So far, so 2006, you might think - but I've always taken the long-term view, with regard to playing WoW. Now that I'm at the new level cap, some of the Wrath of the Lich King instances are on the table now for soloing - such as The Nexus and Utgarde Keep, which will help out my two main alts immensely (Level 75 Hunter and Level 70 Mage, respectively).

World of Warcraft may be an easy target these days for the "cool" gaming hardcore, but in my mind it still stands up as an outstanding piece of game design and interactive entertainment. Whatever its technical flaws, and even what some might call an iterative design philosophy (of incremental improvement, rather than revolutionary steps forward), I can't see myself stopping playing it anytime soon.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Bark/Byte: Sweeping away the tumbleweed

As my first full year as a qualified pedagogic facilitator draws to a close, I'm starting to feel the need to scratch the writing itch again. And now that I'm getting much more efficient at my job, I'm actually starting to be able to make the time to do it.

Unfortunately, regular games reviewing or feature writing is kind of out of the question (since it's just too time consuming), but I am gradually finding some time to re-start work on a couple of short stories (one sci-fi, one fantasy) that I've had on the go for over a year now. I'm concentrating on the fantasy one first (given that I'm in a fantasy mood, thanks to The Witcher 2 and my ongoing relationship with the worlds of Azeroth and Outland). I'm setting myself a target of trying to write at least a hundred words a day until the first draft is finished (at which point I can have it mercilessly picked apart by some of my closest confidants who know the odd thing or five about writing). It's a fairly modest target, you might think, but my greatest problem as a writer is that rather than just bashing down new words, I continually go back and revise and revise what I've already writing, rather than just finishing the story. This goes a long way to explaining why despite having lots of ideas for short stories (and even novels), to date I've not finished a single one. So those one hundred words a day need to be *new* words. I think I'm about a third to half way through the fantasy story so far (weighing in at around 17,000 words so far), so getting finished by the end of the year is a bit of a tall order. Though at least I do have the summer holiday in which to get some serious writing done.

Since I've never been one to really concentrate on one thing at a time, I've also got another non-fiction project on the go - a kind of gaming autobiography. I've only got a skeleton of the book ready so far - I know what games I want to write about, I've just got to sit down and actually bash out the text. Between the two of them, I've got enough writing to keep me busy for probably another year, but I do want to start blogging more regularly again - I really miss taking the time out just to reflect and keep a record of what's been going on and what I've found interesting. I'm not really interested in setting up a Twitter account - I'm not nearly vain enough to believe that the entire world needs to know what I think, as I think it, in 140 character brain dumps. If I'm going to write about something, I want it to have been really considered and thought about - knee-jerk or off the cuff responses to things just tend to get you in trouble anyway.

I'm also not falling into the "social" trap of Facebook, either - for me that's always seemed like an excuse to "keep up" with people without actually interacting with them socially. I guess I'm just old fashioned that way (though I've also got other, professional, reasons for steering well clear of it, too). Incidentally, I saw The Social Network a week or two back - brilliant film - and how ironic that probably the greatest social networking tool of the digital age was invented by someone so utterly socially dysfunctional... but I digress.

So I'm going to stick with the blog for now and try and update rather more regularly than I have over the last year or two. I'll blog later about the new PC and what I've been playing on it. Surprisingly, it's not all just about World of Warcraft...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Byte: Lurch

Somehow the zombie PC continues to lurch along (albeit rather worryingly, constantly accessing the RAID array even when it doesn't appear to have any reason to) - but the good news is that my shiny new PC has already been put together by the tech-wizards at PC Specialist and is in testing. Fingers crossed it will be sitting in my bedroom by lunchtime on Saturday, gobbling up all manner of software and drivers voraciously.

I can't wait to see what a 64-bit, Windows 7 Pro system runs like on a 3.2GHz 6-core processor with 8GB of RAM. Should be... SPEEDY.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Byte: Time to upgrade

Something very odd happened with my games rig last night. I went to turn it on to have a pleasant evening's trash mob bashing on Dragon Age II and... nothing. Not a beep, hoot or poot. A few whirrs from the PSU cooling fan, but otherwise no life at all. Kind of ruined my evening, really.

Then this morning, as I was about to take the thing to bits to do a little diagnostic poking (since it wasn't even POSTing, and I'd previously had a problem with a dead motherboard battery, my initial prognosis was a dead motherboard), I decided to give it one last check. I prod the power button and... it worked. Hmm. Something definitely strange going on here, thinks I. A computer lurching back to life after showing all the signs of permanent death? What the...? There's only one possible conclusion: MY PC IS A ZOMBIE! AIEEEEE!

Fearing another repeat of PC death, I've left the PC on all day, and instead of doing the mountain of work I have to do today to prepare for next week, I've been configurating and ordering a new PC. As usual, I'm getting it from my preferred supplier, PC Specialist - this will be the third PC I've bought from them.

Here's the spec:

CPU: AMD PHENOM II X6 1090T (3.20GHz/9MB CACHE)
RAM: 8GB DDR3 1333MHz
GPU: 1GB NVIDIA GEFORCE GTX 460
HDD: 1TB WD CAVIAR GREEN WD10EARS, SATA 3 Gb/s, 64MB CACHE

Plus all the usual odds and sods, for near as dammit £700, plus a little extra for a fast track build and a Saturday delivery, but that's fine, since I'm saving £100 because I don't have to buy an OS (as I have the Win7 Pro disk I bought when I was doing my PGCE).

Not quite a ravenous monster spec, but it should cope with most things on max settings fairly easily. It quite comprehensively makes what I've got now look rather old and sad - which it is, to be fair - my dead/dying/undead PC is clocking on for four years old now, so I think I was due an upgrade. Of course, a spec like that is total overkill for playing WoW, but at least now I can think about getting Shogun 2 or Crysis 2 (if I had either the time or the inclination) without thinking 'nope, not going to run'.

Though the really nice thing is that my nice, shiny new PC will be ready and waiting for when Witcher 2 shows up in a couple of months. It'll be nice to play that without having to tone down the details.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bark: Well that doesn't happen every day.

I got home tonight to find a rather officious looking envelope waiting for me. 'What's this?' thinks I. 'Someone probably wanting money, no doubt.'

On the contrary, it's a letter from what used to be called the Inland Revenue, giving me a tax rebate for the year that I left IBM and changed careers. Attached to the letter was a cheque. For near-as-dammit £1000.

RESULT!

Now I don't feel quite so guilty for buying that World of Warcraft mouse...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Byte: Disposing disposable income

Having taken quite a substantial pay cut when I changed career a while ago, (that is, when I suddenly stopped having any time to write blog posts), I haven't had as much disposable income to dispose of on games as I used to. One of the consequences of this is that I'm putting most of my gaming time into World of Warcraft at the moment, though that barely amounts to about an hour a day, given that my day (and night) job keeps me busy for upwards of 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, plus a fair bit more at the weekend.

So since I don't buy so many games as I used to (and since I don't have the time to do game reviews anymore, don't get quite so many through the post for free, either), I thought I'd give myself a little bit of a treat and invest in the new WoW MMO mouse.



It looks like a pretty mean piece of kit - at that price it should be! - look at all those buttons! I'm looking forward to getting my mitts on it.