Sunday, November 19, 2017

Two games finished in one day !

Today was somewhat unusual in that I finished campaigns in two separate games: Total Warhammer 2 Lizard men campaign and Vanquish single player campaign. Of course I had played the majority of bot games over the last few weeks and it is just coincidence that I managed to finish them on the same day.

The Lizard-man campaign (Kroq Gar to be exact) is perhaps my favourite Total War campaign of all those I have played. I just love the tough Lizard units and big stompy dinosaurs are awesome. The Vortex campaign is much more story line focused than previous Total War games which is an great direction for the series to go in. You race other factions to take control of the vortex through a series of rituals which spawn increasingly challenging waves of Chaos and Skaven armies. The race is a bit artificial because apparently even if one of the other factions beats you to the final ritual you get a second chance to stop them in a fairly easy final battle. I guess Creative Assembly had to include this  get out of jail card to frustrating players who spend dozens of hours on a campaign only to lose at the very last hurdle. I am happy to say I won the race fair and square although the Dark Elves of Naggaroth were only three turns behind and the High Elves of Lothern were right on their heels. Through out the race I made several attempts to slow my enemies down by sending intervention armies to stop their rituals but enone of the 10,000 gold intervention armies achieved anything before being wiped out. I can't help wondering if the intervention army mechanic is deliberately crippled to ensure the race stays tight.

I have a soft spot for scifi shooters and Vanquish fits the bill nicely. You play an augmented soldier with an array of weapons and some cool bullet time abilities tasked with stopping some evil Russians from blowing up NewYork with a big space ray gun. The movement and shooting are all fine but the game has horrible quick time events at key moments during boss fights.On several occasions I survived a challenging fire fight only to die instantly because I didn't mash button "E" fast enough. For this reason I got completely stuck on the final boss fight because of one QTE. Today I switched to game controller for that QTE and found I can mash "X" on game pad faster than I can mash "E" on keyboard. I finally completed the game but I still really hate QTEs.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Total War Dinosaurs

I have been playing a lot of Total War Warhammer 2 and I am really enjoying Kroq Gar's Lizardmen vortex campaign.

As seems to be the case with every Total War game it took me a few false starts to find a rhythm.  Initially I started a Skaven Campaign but made some early strategic mistakes. I expanded too rapidly leading to problems with money and food supply and I wasted even more money on intervention armies.  Bankrupt and running out of food I have put that campaign on hold. I still love Skaven game play:  swarming enemies with cheap disposable units while pelting them from afar with magic and powerful artillery is very satisfying as is the ability to spawn clan rats(menace from below) behind enemy lines. I was able to pull off several heroic victories against impossible odds using spawned spawned clan rats before food shortages made this tactic un-affordable. I will definitely come back to the Skaven but I may start a fresh campaign.

Second attempt was a High Elf campaign. This went more smoothly but I didn't warm to them. I guess the snooty Elves annoy me and I am not a big fan of their ranged play style. The High Elves actually have some excellent if expensive melee units but High Elf game play is summed up for me by the fact that even their most popular infantry unit (Lothern Seaguard) is good at archery as well as melee.  On the other hand I do like their special mechanic that allows them to influence diplomatic standings. You can use this to secure trade agreements and alliances on your own behalf but perhaps even more interestingly you can use this to interfere with the relationships between third parties. This is definitely something I want to explore further.

My High Elf campaign was put aside when the Mortal Empires expansion came out and I started a new campaign with Volkmar Grim of the Empire on the expanded map. I had no intention of playing him beyond the first dozen turns or so but I did want to experience the huge World of Mortal Empires (which combines the maps of TWW I and TWWW II).

Returning to the Vortex I started a new campaign with Kroq Gar and his Last Defenders (Lizardmen) and I am absolutely loving it. Saurus Warriors are fantastic melee infantry and they are complemented by massive dinosaurs smashing into enemy lines. Even the lowly Skinks can help out by harassing the enemy and adding to the general hurt. Lizards have strong magic options as well although I have yet to properly explore the Slan Mage capabilities.

Lizards do have ranged units but these have very short range and are designed more for harassment than for winning archery battles. I am not too sure about the point of Lizard Artillery units yet. These are big guns mounted on top of dinosaurs. In the first instance the guns have shorter range than competing artillery and in the second instance they are mounted on top of dinosaurs. You can generally do more damage charging the dino in to smash enemies around than standing off firing the gun. Lizards do have two nice aerial terradon units however one with javelins and one with bombs.  These can be sometimes be used take out enemy artillery and to otherwise compensate for the lizards general lack of range.

Lizardmen and dinosaurs  have a habit of losing self control and running amok but this has advantages as well as disadvantages. Careful micromanagement goes out the window if half your army is on the rampage but as long as they are in the middle of a bunch of enemies when it happens the it can be useful because rampage seems to hold off units from breaking.

Lizardmen's unique gameplay mechanic is called the Geomatic web which gives extra bonuses for fully owned provinces. It does give great bonuses at higher levels but I don't find it as interesting to play with  as the Skaven or High Elf special mechanics. Nevertheless Lizardmen and their massive dinosaurs are still a really fun faction to play.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Thoughts about cryto-currency mining, gsync and buying a new graphics card

I built a new gaming PC about six months ago (Ryzen 5 1600) but I had a nasty shock when I went looking for a new graphics card. Crypto-currency miners were buying up graphics cards by the dozen to perform the hard sums needed to unlock virtual currency pushing prices for graming graphics cards through the roof. The €300 price bracket that I consider to be my comfort zone seems to be particularly affected with the result that there were no cards available in my price range that would give a reasonable upgrade over my three year old GTX 970.

Aside: Bitcoin was the fore runner and still the most widely known crypto-currency but this year a new player called Etherium seems to be demanding all attention. A key feature of Etherium is that it is resistant to mass extraction using customised chips called "Asics" and therefore requires actual GPUs for mining. It is my understanding that AMD Radeon architecture is the favourite for this process leading to complete lack of availability and sky high prices for cards such as the Radeon RX 580. Nvidia cards are less popular with miners but the lack of competition in the market place has ensured that the price of Nvidia cards remains high even on the second hand market. My gut feeling is that crypto-currency is a bubble waiting to burst. I believe this despite knowing someone who has made hundreds of thousands on an early bit coin investment. It seems to me that the majority of miners are just selling to themselves and to speculative investors. I suspect that like most bubbles a few insiders will make fortunes but most will lose their shirts.

Anyway rather than spend €400 on a graphics card I decided to spend slightly less than €400 on a new monitor instead and bought a Dell 2417DG monitor. The 2417DG has three features that make it a significant upgrade from what I was using previously: it has QHD resolution of 2560x1440, it has high refresh rate of up to 165Hz and it has gsync synchronisation. Gsync is the killer feature for me and it means that the refresh rate of the monitor dynamically adjusts to the frame rate being produced by the GPU. It is an absolute game changer (apologies for the unintended pun). Synchronising monitor and GPU refresh rates leads to a very smooth visuals with no tearing effect. My ageing GTX 970 is quite under-powered for this  QHD monitor. In graphically intensive games such as Witcher 3 and Total War Warhammer my frame rates drop to below 40 fps. This would be quite unpleasant with an old fixed refresh rate monitor but on the gsync monitor it looks butter smooth.

Buying a gsync monitor really did allow me to extend the useful life of my old graphics card but there are a couple of disadvantages. The first is the nagging feeling that I am not getting the most out of my lovely 165Hz monitor when my current graphics card struggles to get frame rates above 60fps in any modern game. The second issue is that buying a gsync monitor has locked me into Nvidia graphics for the foreseeable future because AMD cards use the similar but different Freesync technology. This is not a major issue today given the ridiculous pricing of AMD GPUs but it may be a problem in the future.

My cunning plan, as you may have guessed, was to rely on gsync technology to extend the life of my old GTX 970 while waiting for the crypto currency madness to pass. It was a good plan except for the weakness of human nature. Six months passed and GPU prices remained sky high. There is only so much browsing of Amazon, Ebay and pcpartpicker.com a human can endure. Last weekend I crumbled and bought a GTX 1080 for €460. This is more than I have ever paid for a graphics card and to be honest is a silly amount of money. The only justification I can give is that it should give me frame rates about twice what the old 970 could achieve and it didn't seem worth it to settle for anything less.


TLDR: I strongly recommend gsync (or presumably freesync) monitors and they can extend the useful life of an old graphics card by delivering smooth visuals even at low frame rates. They will only save you money however if you have strong willpower and can resist the impulse to buy a new graphics card as well.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

My experience with very cheap ink

In February 2016 I ordered a set of really cheap ink for our Canon Pixma printer: http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/251740970361 . That is just over €12 for four complete sets of ink. Contrast that with the official Canon price of €57.99 for a a single multi-pack of four colours: https://store.canon.ie/pixma-mg-5650-cartridges/cp928eed/

I am fully aware of the razor and blade model  that inkjet printers use and I had often bought third party ink before but I had never gone so cheap. At some stage you do get what you pay for and that ebay ink is only 1/18th the price of official Canon ink so I bought it as something of an experiment. Well here we are 19 months later and that ink is finally running out. I would like to share some of the fears I had when buying such cheap ink and my eperiences with it. 

1. It won't work at all or have some annoying incompatibilty. Nope. Ink worked perfectly and is 100% compatible. Even has a little LED on each cartridge to show its status and it reports ink levels correctly to the printer softeware. 

2. Cheap ink like this will clog the jets and damage the printer. Given a brand new printer costs no more than a single refill of ink I was willing to risk this. Happily I can report that the printer has chugged along nicely on the cheap ink and doesn't seem to have suffered at all. To be fair we aren't heavy printers but with two adults and two school going kids there is probably something printed most days.

3. The print quality will suffer. If it has I haven't noticed but we aren't printing wedding photos. We are printing graphs for school projects and tickets for the cinema. We neither know nor care if the colours are a little off.  

4. The ink will fade. Again I cannot say if it does or not. The bar code I printed a couple of months ago has long been discarded. There are some craft things my daughters printed a few  months ago and they seem to have held their colour.

5. The cheap ink cartridges won't be properly filled. This hasn't been our experience. The twenty cartridge set has lasted us over 18 months (and only two colours have actually run out so far). It seems to me that the cartidge itself complete with circuit board and LED probably costs more than the ink inside it so there isn't much of an incentive for them to skimp on the ink. 

Overall conclusion: A very sucessful experiment. Am going to order the same set again.

Aside: I bought this printer just over two years ago and I remember that it cost about €60. That is pretty much identical to the price of a single refill of official ink. The thing is that the printer came with a free set of ink cartridges. I have seen suggestions that these initial cartridges are only half full but that has not been my experience. The awful truth is that if you insist on buying own brand printer cartidges you may as well just buy a whole new printer everytime you replace the ink. 


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Do you carry a pocket knife?

My father was a practical man. He grew up on a farm and enjoyed hunting and fishing. He apprenticed as a carpenter and built houses for a living.  As a crasftman he knew the importance of good steel but he wasn't a knife nerd. I remember him  carrying a succession of knives over the years both cheap and expensive. The one constant is that he always had a pocket knife and he used it for everything. The same blade that cut carpet tile in the morning was used to peel the apple my father ate that afternoon. He firmly believed that every boy and man should carry a pocket knife and  I still remember him bringing me to buy my first knife at age seven or eight. The salesman talked him out of it that day sadly and I didn't get a knife of my own for a few more years.  I still have his last  pocket knife before he died. It is an old and battered knock off of a swiss army knife. It is my most treasured momento of my father.

Given my father's habit it is hardly surprising that I myself carried a pocket knife through my teenage years and right through college. A boy's life is full of adventure and a boy's pockets are deep and full of things. Carrying a pocket knife made sense when it was the only tool I owned but even in the 1970s this was somewhat unusual. I was the only boy in my middle class surbuban secondary school  classroom who carried a knife although I did meet other tool carriers later in engineering college.

Then I grew up got and got a job in an office and somehow a pocket knife didn't seem essential any more. Adult pockets are filled with keys, wallets, jangling change and later phones. In the adult world we have dedicated tools which are better for any given job than a pocket knife. In the office we have real scissors, guillotines, box cutters and other dedicated tools. At home I have a kitchen full of chopping, peeling and paring implements, and a shed full of tools. No matter what the job there is almost always a proper tool at hand to do it.  Why carry a pocket knife?

I do still have several pocket knives. I keep a battered single blade folding knife in my tool kit and I keep a Leatherman in my car for emergencies. My favourite knife however is Victorinox Huntsman that I bought in Zurich airport about thirty years ago. It is about as large as I can comfortably carry in my pocket and it does have a number of useful tools including a long and short blade (I prefer the short), a scissors, an awl and a corkscrew. I don't carry it every day and I don't need to but I know where it is and it regularly gets called into service when we cannot find a corkscrew or a package arrives from Amazon that needs opening. Occasionally I put in in my pocket in memory of my father. I think I will carry it today.

Looking good for a thirty year old. The toothpick and scissors spring have been replaced while the corkscrew mini screwdriver was a later addition. 


Aside #1: This post was inspired by my stumbling down the rabbit whole of Youtube knife videos. Knives are a big deal for some people and humble Victorinox and Leatherman tools are only begnner models in a hobby that rises to $1000+ custom made pocket knives.

Politics  warning: There is some overlap between knife collecting and gun culture / survivalism  / militarism  particularly in the US so some knife channels may annoy more liberal viewers. Nick Shabazz on the other hand is a very non political non controversial Youtuber who has a great knife channel so go there if easily triggered. Wranglerstar is another channel I really like. It is more of a homesteading / general tool show although he does cover knives. Colby who hosts the channel is a gun loving Trump voting republican who occasionally voices his political views. However he comes across as a very decent down to earth nice guy. He hasn't managed to change my views on politics or on Trump in particular but he has certainly made me reconsider my opinion of Turmp voters.

Aside #2: I now know that the modern parlance for the sort of knife my father carried around is EDC (every day carry).

Aside #3: Irish law is occasionally a source of puzzlement to knife lovers. On one hand Irish knife law is very strict and bans every knife and all other sharp implements. Even screwdrivers have been cited as items that it could be illegal to carry. On the other hand it is an acceptable defense that you have a reason for carrying that knife for legitimate work or leisure purpose. This means there are no hard and fast rules about legal blade lengths or legal blade shapes. If you have a legitimate reason for carrying that knife in that location then it is legal but the onus of proof is on you. Who decides what is legitmate? In the first instance a garda officer (policeman) and then ultimately a judge.  The law is ambiguous however and in theory you could be arrested for bringing a swiss army knife into a public place if a garda thought you meant to cause trouble with it (although given the choice I would rather bring a scewdriver into a knife fight than a swiss army knife).  It probably isn't ideal to have such ambiguity in the law of a modern nation but in practise it seems to be applied reasonably.  You won't get into trouble for a multi tool or pocket knife but you will have a harder job explaining away a dagger or a machete unless you are actually using it to chop down trees.