Friday, June 26, 2015

Just watched "The Appartment" with Jack Lemmon, Shirley McLaine and Fred McMurray

This 65 year old black comedy still hits the spot today. Lemmon plays a likeable minion in an enormous 1960s office building who  is bullied into allowing his superiors borrow his bachelor apartment for illicit sexual liaisons. Complications ensue when he falls for one of the girls who is being led along by a senior manager. The the story is very black and very clever. The acting is terrific and the period setting is reminiscent of some of the earlier episodes of Mad-Men.

Monday, June 15, 2015

HomeWorld Remastered

I picked up a copy of Homeworld remastered in the Steam Sale. It wasn't strictly necessary because I still have all three original games (HW1, HW2 and HW Cataclysm) and I have even played them within the last five years on a Windows 7 PC. Nevertheless Homeworld was a stunning achievement of gaming and I am happy to support Gearboxes re-release of the series.

A nice thing about the package is that you get Homeworld 1 and 2 remastered as well as the orginal Homeworld 1 and 2 all in one package. Cataclysm sadly is tied up in licensing limbo so that couldn't be included. 

I have played about five missions in HW1 remastered so far and for comparison I also played a couple of missions in the original Homeworld. The good news is that the remastered version sticks very closely to the original but with better graphics. The bad news is that the sound and music are a lot less atmospheric to my ears. This is a big deal for me. Homeworld had awesome atmosphere and the haunting sound track was a huge part of it. The new game just doesn't seem to hit the same note. To be honest I find it more enjoyable to play the older game with poorer graphics and better sound. The controls are a bit better in the new game which might appeal to a new player but I am not sure you get the full effect without the awesome sound track. EDIT: This entire paragraph may be wrong. on second look I am no longer sure that sound and music is the reason why the game feel so different. It may be more to do with pacing. The remastered game is much faster with more resources and more ships all round. 

At least the collection gives you the choice so I still recommend it.

Edit 1: I played a bit more Homeworld last night and I have come to realise that there are significant gameplay differences between the original game and the remastered game as well as the change in soundtrack. Frigates for example seem to be less durable in the new game that the original version. Perhaps the biggest difference though is that the resource economy seems to be far more generous in the new game. The prices of ships are different so it is hard to directly compare but I seem to build up a huge surplus without even trying in the new game while I regularly run out of resources in the older game. This makes a big difference to game play because in the older game you must start each level with a desperate hunt for resources. In the new game I find that  I usually have a big enough buffer that I don't need to scavenge until after the fighting is done. My initial thought about the impact of soundtrack on atmosphere have also been reinforced by a longer playthrough. It isn't just the big set pieces it the timing of incidental sound effects too. Everything in the original Homeworld is exquisitely choreographed. In the new game feels like much less attention was given to the detail of building and maintaining game atmosphere.

Edit 2: I finished the Homeworld campaign (hurray) so I am going back to look at the remastered version again. I am no longer convinced that the sound and music are the reason why the atmosphere seems different. I think it may be more to do with the pacing of the game. The remastered version seems much faster paced.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Mafia: My Rose Coloured Glasses Exposed

I am replaying Mafia City of Lost Heaven, a game I fondly remember as having one of the most atmospheric cities in gaming and one of the best story lines but is the reality really as good as my memories?

Well first the bad news: Combat is awful and clunky. Camera angles when driving are frustrating.  The level design is often cruel with long difficult levels having few save points necessitating frequency reloads. I did remember that the game had an infamous unskippable race level which caused many players to quit and yes it is still a frustrating hurdle. It took me about twenty attempts on the humiliatingly titled "easy mode" before I got through. Spare a thought for those poor players who tried to play the game before a patch added  "easy" mode to the race. Some of the levels are so unfair that  wonder if was deliberate cruelty on behalf of the devs. Consider a mission where you must  shootout with a much of hoodlums in order to retrieve a payment for your Mafia boss. The clunky combat controls pretty much guarantee you will take damage but just when it looks like you have killed the last of them you get jumped not once but twice. The second of these pop up assailants grabs a car and drives off with your money so you must give chase. He is driving a powerful sportscar and you have a jalopy. Your only hope of catching him is to shoot out his tyres before he leaves you in his dust. If you do finally manage to force him to stop  (after several restarts most likely) then he jumps out and starts shooting at you. This is when you realise that you are extremely low on health and the game autosaved at the very end of the initial gunfight when you health was at its lowest ebb with no opportunity to regain health. Arggghhh ...

Happily I can report that the city is still wonderful. It looks great and it sounds great and it feels like a 1930's city. The cars are slow and awkward but that is OK because it is the 1930's. Cars should be slow and hard to drive. You can get out of your car and walk or take public transport. The other good news is that the story is still good with strong characters and a good plot.

So are my fond memories of the game invalid? I would say not. The things I remember fondly from the game are still very good. It is just that I somehow forgot how bad the bad bits were. I am not sure I can still recommend a modern gamer to try the game any more though (not that that is easy to do anyway as no digital download is available).

Monday, June 01, 2015

Warlock 2 The Exiled

I finished a full single player campaign of Warlock 2 the Exiled last week. Overall I enjoyed the game and recommend it but it does have some shortcomings and threatened to become tedious at times.

The game play is almost identical to the first Warlock but Warlock 2 has a wider variety of units and spells and a more defined single player campaign. It looks like a fantasy version of Civ V but there is far more emphasis on combat and very little emphasis on things like trade and diplomacy. The large game world is spread across a dozen or more randomly generated shards that are connected via a network of portals.  These shards are beautifully rendered with a lot of variety of scenery and resources.

The tactical turn based combat  is very good good with a wide variety of units and abilities. You are a great mage so you can support your units with spells that have powerful effects on just about every aspect of the game.  I imagine it makes for an enjoyable multiplayer game although I have no idea how many people are still playing.

The single player game is somewhat let down by weak AI. Fighting NPC mages presents very little challenge but plenty of tedium as you slowly grind your way across the shards. Happily the default campaign is more challenging because it uses the age old trick of substituting ridiculously powerful monsters for decent artificial intelligence. In order to overcome the "United One" you must first find a way across the portal network to his lair. This encourages exploration of the shards. The monsters get every more powerful as you approach the final lair so you cannot neglect economy or development in order to have any chance against the final bosses.

The unrest mechanic is a new feature since the first Warlock which adds a very interesting twist to the strategic game. If you own more than given amount of settlements unrest will cause increasingly severe penalties. At the start of he game the limit is only five which you could easily use up on a single one of the more than a dozen shards. You can increase the limit through research but even by the end of the game I could only build a dozen settlements. This has a huge influence on the strategic game forcing you to make hard choices about which towns to keep and which to abandon. If you decide to let a town gp you can convert it to a special settlement which will still provide a small amount of resources but you can no longer control it or use it for recruitment.

The unrest limit means that it isn't possible to steam-roll over the shards capturing all before you. It also means that it is somewhat pointless going to war with the npc mages for territory. This is probably a good thing. In my campaign I ended up allying with all of the npc mages in my quest to overcome the United One. This may have been a mistake however because the poor AI meant my allies were more of a hindrance than a help they tended to send swarms of weak units around after me blocking critical access points and grabbing the loot from monster lairs after I had done most of the fighting. Worse again allying with an npc immediately activates every shard they are on which greatly slows down the time between turns.

The final battle is against four ridiculously overpowered "lieutenants" and it is a classic case of Contractual Boss Immunity as they are immune to a lot of the standard spells and abilities. Nevertheless I eventually managed to overcome them with a few ridiculously over-buffed heroes of my own. Some of the buffs came from spells but a lot of them came from special equipment that could only be made in certain regions due to  the availability of special resources. The need to build or capture settlements in these regions while staying under the unrest limit became one of the dominant features of the game for me.

The campaign took me about fifty hours. Initially it was exciting as I got to grips with all the features but I found the long mid game quite tedious as I trawled across the shards fighting fairly weak monsters and doing my best to stay out of the way of npc mages. It was only when I reached the final shards that things got interesting again. The increasingly difficult monsters forced me to reconsider my strategy and my tactics.


Wooden Bread (cutting) Boards

The wooden bread board that has served us for the last twenty years finally gave up the ghost a few months back and it has been a challenge to get a suitable replacement. 

The old board acquired during the early years of our marriage was a simple circle of wood that we used to slice bread on. A simple shake and wipe after each use kept it clean and about once a week it got a run through the dishwasher. I can't recall exactly where we got it but I know it wasn't an expensive product. It was simple and robust and it did the job for many years before old age finally caught up with it and it cracked in two. 

Aside: My father worked in the building trade and when I was growing up he kept us supplied with solid wood chopping boards cut from stair treads. These were virtually indestructible so I was not surprised at the longevity of our humble cutting board.  

When I first went looking for a replacement I was surprised to find that bread boards appear to have moved on in the last twenty years. House-ware stores now display an array of designer products in many shapes and sizes carved from exotic woods. These magnificent products (with equally magnificent price tags) promised to transform our humble kitchen in to an oasis of holistic sustainability.  I was somewhat sceptical of these far fetched claims but still in need of surface on which to cut my daily bread so I bought one.

I was a little taken aback to when the instructions explained that such a refined cutting board should never be cleaned with soap and water and in particular should never ever see the inside of a dishwasher. Instead various complicated rituals involving the thighs of vestal virgins and the refined oils of exotic fruits and nuts would be required.

Life is too short to go searching out vestal virgins just so one can slice bread so I simply left the board in our kitchen to fend for itself. It lasted less than a week before warping and splitting into fragments. 

I spent the next few months  in a frustrating hunt for a better replacement. I went to far as to buy two more over priced slabs of wood but each also fell apart in turn when they were subjected to my family's understanding of "normal wear and tear".

I had almost given up hope when I stumbled across a simple circular board on sale for €3.99 in a local discount shop. To hell with  €20 and €30 designer boards. This was more like it. I bought one and put it to use that day. It has stood up to the rigours of cutting and washing (including the dishwasher) for three weeks and no exotic oils nor virgins have been required. Highly recommended. I am tempted to buy another simply to keep in storage for twenty years time.  

If you are interested it is this exact product: http://www.apollohousewares.co.uk/products/details/idProduct/1533/
The material is marked Hevea Wood which I believe comes from the rubber tree.  

Friday, May 08, 2015

Leeroy Jenkins Sufffers Digital Degradation. Is the Cloud not as secure as we thought?

An astute poster on Reddit spotted that the famous World of Warcraft parody video "Leeroy Jenkins" has apparently degraded over time on Youtube and the audio is now corrupted.

What could be going on. Are digital archives not as incorruptible as we once believed? If such an iconic work can be corrupted what does this mean for our precious memories that we are increasingly trusting to cloud storage?

Storage devices can degrade over time but this is very unlikely to be the cause of Leeroy Jenkins corruption. Any half way decent cloud storage system has multiply redundant back ups with error correction. As several respondents to the Reddit post have pointed out it is far more likely that the errors were introduced when the video was converted from an older video format to a newer format. The "copy of a copy" syndrome kicks in and quality degrades.

EDIT: For clarification: You can copy digital files perfectly so "copy of a copy" degradation isn't always a problem but digital video formats employ lossy compression so some quality is lost with each conversion. The audio distortion in this case however is so extreme I suspect this is more than just incremental loss  of quality over multiple conversions. I think something went seriously wrong in a recent conversion to HTML5 format.

Regardless of the cause however the video is now corrupted. Given Leeroy's iconic status I am hopeful that some nerd at Google will take notice and restore a pristine copy. The fact that this can happen is something to think about however. Leeroy Jenkins may still be well known enough for someone to go to the bother of fixing it. I doubt you can say the same about the videos you uploaded of your child's birthday party.

Original Reddit post from I_ama_Borat here: http://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/357s6l/eli5_all_of_a_sudden_the_famous_video_of_leeroy/