Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Far Cry 2 aka Grand Theft Auto Somalia

I am currently playing Far Cry 2, bought to test my shiny new 1Gb HD4850 grapics card. I still amn't sure about the game. It feels more like a GTA game than a true sequel to Far Cry.

The only open ended sand box game that really sucked me in was Mafia. It had a compelling storyline set in a seductively beautiful entirely credible 1920's prohibition era city. GTA 3 was set in an ugly city and had a poor story, I hated it. Far Cry 2 is set in a lush jungle setting but it lacks the Tropical beauty of the original Far Cry. Even more importantly there are no civillians in this world. Every one you meet totes a gun and 99% of them try to kill you. I guess it is understandable that Crytek choose not to populate their game with the starving victims of conflict but the world feels much shallower for lack of ordinary people.

An engrossing storyline could save the game for me but so far I have seen no sign of it. I am only a few hours in however so things could improve yet.

Far Cry 2 has got pretty good reviews from the critics but player reaction has been mixed. PC gamers who were hoping for a true sequel to the 2004 classic seem to have been disappointed while console gamers who only got a poor knockoff of the original seem to be more pleased.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Man Stuff

My brother in law bought a 40 year old combine harvester. His wife (my sister in law) doesn't understand. His sister (my wife) doesn't understand. His mother (my mother in law) doesn't understand. He has a few cattle but he is not a tillage farmer and this is in reality an entirely superfluous purchase. They shake their heads at the foolishness of it all. His mumbled attempts to justify his purchase by calculating its value in scrap metal are unconvincing.

I can understand though. It makes sense to me when I see the glint is his eye as he describes the combine. It makes sense when he tells me about a 1970's documentary film which spawned an unfulfilled ambition to join the contractors who drive their great harvesters on the annual trail from Texas all the way to Canada. Most of all though it makes sense when I climb on top of this great smoking, grinding whirring, clanking machine, gloriously uninhibited by today's mandatory safety features and trundle across the fields.

He is talking about planting some wheat next year, just a small field.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lotro: In search of the mythical female dwarf.

If Throg sometimes appears to be a bit grumpy then consider the fact that our poor hero seems destined to live a lonely life without the comforts of the (slightly) fairer sex. Ever since the flood of of adolescent hormones first hit his bloodstream in his mid 50's he has been hoping to meet a sturdy young lady with a neatly trimmed beard but his success with the ladies to date has been non-existent.

It is not for want of dwarfly charm that our hero's passions have been unrequited. It is a simple matter of never having found the right woman. Or rather it is a fact of never having found any woman at all. Throg has searched and searched but in all his travels around Middle Earth he has yet to meet a single dwarf of the opposite sex. It would seem that dwarven women are fabulously rare and are those that do exist are highly protected by their fathers (who were young themselves once and know exactly the sort intentions a young dwarf is likely to have towards their beloved daughters).

Think first of Throg's frustration and then imagine the excitement that overtook him on finding a delicately carved axe in the remains of Balins camp, a distinctly feminine axe! He immediately forgot his anger at the fool dwarf who sent him on a errand to check out this this camp in an area infested with hordes of vile bugs (the fool had asured Throg that it would be an easy mission for a Champion of the 55th level but in fact Throg barely escaped from the fast respawning insect hordes even at level 57).

Where will this lead? Will Throg finally meet the love of his life?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lotro: The Forges

Throg just dinged 57 when he got a request to join a kinship group doing the Forges instance. This is one of the progression instances that needs to be farmed in order to get the end game radiance gear that is a prerequisite for raiding in MoM. The quests for this place are level 58 up so Throg wasn't really eligible but the group was short a body and Throg is not a dwarf to turn down the chance of a bit of axe swinging so I signed him up.

The forges themselves are very impressive. We are in the heart of the mountain where massive trolls toil away in the glowing lava pits. I didn't have much time to admire the scenery though because we were trying for "hard mode" which means running the instance within a very tight time window. Hard mode gets one radiant armour drop as far as I can tell.

We got the first two bosses down but wiped on the third and had to give up because one of our party had a dodgy internet connection and kept getting cut off. I think Throg acquitted himself respectably. At least I tried to follow the direction on Vent, got in clobbers when required and I am I am pretty sure I didn't break any mezzes. I even managed to use Falling Ire, the Champion aggro management skill which is a new development for me. Sadly I didn't fare so well when our main tank was flung to a fiery death and Throg found himself getting the full attention of an enraged Troll. Throg lasted about 10 seconds and a full wipe ensued. I need to get better at switching to Tank mode in such circumstances, popping a shield and activating defensive skills. I doubt it would have made any difference last night but I get the impression that being able to take over from an injured main tank will be a useful ability for a Champion in the end game of Moria.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

EVE: 5 free Days and Thoughts on Microtransactions

EVE have offered me and other lapsed players 5 free days in an attempt to encourage us back to the game. This is fairly standard business practice for mmos and I am sure they get a few returnees from such schemes. The message set me thinking however.

First of all I probably won't be availing of the 5 day offer, not because I don't like EVE (I think it is superb) but because I know that you cannot really achieve anything in an mmo in 5 days. It is just enough to whet your appetite for more and I simply do not have the time to play EVE seriously at the moment and I am not prepared to take on a monthly subscripton for a game I would only play sporadically.

Recent announcements from EA and SOE have riled a bunch of bloggers about the whole subject of microtransactions in games. I agree that there is a huge moral hazard that games will suffer as developers start designing in such a way that they can screw more cash from players using microtransactions. However I could envisage a poitive role for microtransactions if it was done in a considerate player supportive way. In particular I think microtransactions should be offered in parallel with a monthly sub with an an either/or model. If you are a casual player who only wants to play a few days a month - go micro transactions. If you are more serious and want to play every day then buy a monthly sub and get everything included. The key point here is that the monthly sub should be a cap on your expenditure offering access to everything for a single monthly payment.

If EVE or other games had a model like that I might play them for a day or two a month and pay a few euro's for the privelige.

EVE Online: May we Ambush You at 10:00am tomorrow Please?

EVE online thrives on truly massive space battles and CCP are doing their best to ensure that such large concentrations of players do not cause undue server lag. Even still I am a bit taken aback by a request in the latest newsletter for players to notify CCP in advance if they are planning a large fleet engagement. The announcement contains dire warnings about abuse of the system but I am still not sure.

To quote Sun Tsu: In conflict, direct confrontation will lead to engagement and surprise will lead to victory.

So if you are planning a surprise ambush on the heartland of Band of Brothers so you really think it would be a good idea to notify CCP in advance?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lotro: Help I'm Levelling up too fast.

I have been doggedly trying to do every quest in each region before I move on. I pretty much cleared out Eregion, The Great Delving, Sivertine Lodes, Durins Way and now I have moved into Zelem Melek (a region who's geography still completely baffles me by the way). It is not compulsory to finish every quest but there is something very satisfying about clearing out an area plus you usually get a nice title and trait rewards for doing so.

The only problem is that I am levelling up faster than I can complete quests. As a consequence of my completionist policy I spend a lot of my time doing quests which are a fair bit below below my level. Throg is now level 56 fast approaching 57 and still has a lot to do before finishing Zelem Melek.

It's not really a problem but Throg is probably a little under-geared because the rewards from these quests are generally below his level. At least with the Christmas season coming up I should have time to run a few more fellowship instances which should net me some gear.

Lotro: Second Moria Patch Delayed due to Exploit

The second MoM patch was supposed to be deployed to European servers yesterday but was pulled at the last minute. Codemasters support forums say that an exploit was discovered and the deployment was put off till today. Servers are still down so I guess the update is still in progress.

The interesting thing about this is that the US got the patch 4 days ago on the 15th. My guess is the exploit was discovered on US servers and they decided to delay deployment in Europe until it is fixed. I wonder if they are hot-fixing the US servers too. Anyone finding that you can now vendor beginner level light hides for 100G a piece in the US please let me know.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Lotro: The Forgotten Treasury

Throg joined a Kinship group for the Forgotten Treasury instance last night. It was an enjoyable change from the solo questing that the now level 55 dwarf champion has been mostly doing so far in Moria.

Some members of the group had tried and failed to clear the Treasury before so we knew it would be challenging but we were lucky enough to have a well balanced group with Guardian, Minstrel, Lore Master, Hunter, Burglar and Champion (Throg). Throg (level 55) and the minstrel (53) were both below the 56ish level of the instance but the others were all higher so it more or less balanced out.



[SPOILERs ahead]
It is a well designed enjoyable instance set in a circular chamber with balcony around. As you enter, a boss absconds to a locked side chamber with his treasure leaving the fellowship to clear trash ringed around the balcony. Once the trash are cleared you have access to a puzzle which must be solved in order to open the locked door. Clearing the (including six mini bosses) also gets you drops for several side quests but there isn't enough to go around so we had to do a second run to get all the drops we needed.

The puzzle involves rotating six statues in the correct order in order to illuminate a central pendulum which opens the door. Each statue is turned using a wheel on its balcony mounted pedestal but turning any wheel out of order resets all the statues. The order seems to randomly change on every run of the instance so a bit of trial and error is required to get it right.

In a chest beside each wheel you get either a yellow or blue crystal shard. These are needed in the following boss encounter so make sure they are spread around the fellowship.

The first boss waits in his side chamber. He has two main abilities that must be overcome. Every 30 seconds or so he changes from corporeal form to ethereal form in which he has huge damage mitigation (90% I think). This change can be delayed by using one of the yellow crystals which will extend the timer for his corporeal form. Each crystal is on 5 minute cool down so spread them around the fellowship. The boss also has a series of nasty debuffs that get applied to random members of the fellowship. These debuffs are announced by an eye over your character's head so you can avoid them by getting out of line of sight but they can also be cured. The most serious debuff seems to be a wound which does 500 damage every 2 seconds so it is vital to avoid or cure this. Our LM was able to cure it and we didn't have to run out of line of sight but other have reported that this can be a killer. We never got to use the blue crystal shards - these say that they extend ethereal form but we could see no reason why you would want to do that.

Exiting the side chamber after killing the first boss you run into twin Troll bosses. This is a tough encounter. Not only do these guys hit hard but when they get close together they get even stronger. Keeping them apart is very difficult because they seem to share aggro and damage in some fashion that we couldn't quite work out. As if that wasn't enough they have some kind of progressive debuff that gradually lowers every member of the fellowships maximum health (at one stage Throg's maximum helath had dropped from over 4000 to less than 200!). We tried rooting one and tanking the other away but it didn't work. We tried using two tanks to hold the trolls on opposite sides of the circle but the shared damage made it almost impossible to control aggro. The one useful thing we discovered was that the progressive debuff goes away in the little side chamber so we pulled the trolls in there but of course it became even harder to separate them in this little room.

We died many times (dropping out for repairs at one point) but eventually we killed them by kiting them around the little room and hitting the running trolls as best we could. Since they do melee damage this kiting works but it was a very slow process because its is very hard to land hits on a running troll.

Our method though effective was very inelegant. I am sure we are missing something. Perhaps with precisely balanced tanking we could have kept them apart but I have no idea how you would manage this. I am also curious about the blue crystal shard which we never got to use. Could they do something for this encounter?

[End Spoilers]

After killing bosses we got to loot their chests. Mainly legendary weapon upgrades but there were a few pieces of armour. Throg got a cloak with +might, + morale that will suit him nicely at level 56.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Recycling mmo content

The first raid of World of Warcraft's Wrath of the Lich King expansion is Naxxramas. The same Naxxramas that was the toughest most challenging raid of vanilla WoW several years ago. What an interesting way to overcome two challenges of mmo development: the problem of obsolescence of older end game content and the high cost of new content development.

I haven't played WoW in quite some time so all my info is second hand but from reading a few WoW blogs it appears that the new Naxxramas is very similar to the old Naxxramas. Monster levels have been increased of course, loot tables have been revised and the location of the encounter has been moved but it seems that the old tactics still work. Clearly this is the new environmentally friendly face of mmorpging: content recycling.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that there doesn't seem to be many complaints. Most people seem happy with the idea. The few complaints I have seen come from the very hardcore who managed to clear the encounter within days of the expansion being released (presumably because they already knew the strategy). Perhaps this is because the old Naxxramas was the uber hard final raid of vanilla Wow and many players never even got to see the place with fewer still managing to complete it. As the first raid of the latest expansion it seems that the difficulty level has been proportionately reduced. For many players this will be a chance to finally conquer a place they never could.

It even fits from a lore perspective. Naxxramas was always supposed to be situated in the new zone of Northrend, it was just that players were magically tele-ported there from vanilla WoW.

Is this a once off or could it be more generally applied? Should every old raid be buffed up to the new level cap whenever an expansion is released? How would you incentivise people to run old raids? Would you make them compulsory steps on the progression ladder? Would players eventually rebel at being forced to run the same old content yet again?

Here is another thought - rather than recycling raids to the new level cap what about leaving them at their level but lowering the difficulty to make them into standard group encounters. This would reflect the fact that it will always be very difficult to organise enough players to form a raid at any level below the current level cap. Such a move wouldn't upset end game progression but would give "tourists" an opportunity to see the place and allow people to plug gaps in their quest logs. I doubt there would be any need to adjust loot tables either as the raid drops will be rendered obsolete as players level up. In fairness to those who complete the ecounter while it is still an epic raid any fancy titles or achievements given for completing the raid should no longer be available once the difficulty level drops.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Lotro: Thought about End Game Progression

Several members of Throg's kin have hit the level cap and more are fast approaching it. At level 54 it seems that I am among the most casual of the active players in this casual friendly kinship. In kin chat I can see that much of the talk has turned to those instances that must be run in order to gear up for the "Watcher" raid instance. My understanding of the Watcher is that an extension of the hope/dread mechanic is being applied to create a gear check. Effectively a special "radiance" armour set is required to prvent your character from constantly cowering in fear. Radiance armour is got from repeated runs of a set of preparatory instances in so called "hard mode".

This is the first real gear check in Lotro. Previously end game raiding (in the Rift and Helegorod) was open to any max level character and it was quite possible for a very casual player to go along on an occasional Raid as a tourist. Turbine's new approach offers advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side it offers a real sense of end-game progression - the ever tempting carrot on a stick that will help to keep more dedicated players motivated for the long haul. On the down side it will create a barrier between raiders and non raiders, perhaps splitting kinships into casual and hardcore groups.

To Turbine's credit the use of the radiance mechanic instead of a more traditional stats based gear check should help ensure that raiders are not completely overpowered in comparison to non raiders outside of raid instances.

Speaking personally I have never been particularly motivated by loot, I am happy to keep playing the game at my own pace as long as I find enjoyable things to do. It will be interesting to watch how the new "progression" based end game impacts players and Kinships. I suspect it will create new strains for very casual Kinships but Throg is lucky enough to be in a kinship that is both casual friendly and well organised. I am hopeful that this combination will see us through the changes to come. A very positive indication is that the Kin's raid planning tool is already being used to schedule low level instance and quest runs alongside end game events, this augurs well for us being to handle a mix of players at different steps on the end game progression ladder later on.

Lotro: Throg Moves into Moria

Throg moved into Moria on Friday after completing almost every quest in Eregion. I am happy to say that after a weekend of adventuring in the Great Delving I am still enjoying exploring the crumbling ruins of Durin's kingdom. Despite being entirely subterranean it is not claustrophobic. The caverns are huge but they are also dark and ominous. Indeed the most common cause of death for new entrants like me is plunging into chasms through one of the many cracks in the paths.

Just as in Eregion it is mostly solo stuff but it somehow seems more appropriate to wander the gloomy tunnels on your own. The darkness and the broken nature of the terrain means that Moria is an explorer's paradise full of nooks and crannies to be ferreted out.

Highlights of the weekend included:

Heading off on foot through the dangerous Zelem-Melek area in order to get to the 21st hall, the main settlement of Moria and the location of Bank and Auction house.

Stumbling across the starter quest for Volume 2 book 1 on my way back from the 21st Hall via a safer route.

Doing my first ever infused gem quest, a solo instance called "The Training Halls" which gives legendary item experience and is repeatable every time you hand in one of the appropriate infused gems that drop randomly from mobs. At level 54 the instance was spot on for me with a bunch of normal level mobs and only one signature. The key to the instance was pulling everything in the correct order giving it a puzzle like quality which I quite enjoyed.

Ongoing highlights include the advances made to my character through levelling up. Rather than getting any major new skills the Champion gets upgrades to several existing skills which greatly increase their utility. The replacement for the little used savage strikes skill now removes buffs from opponents as well as having a cool new fiery emote. Almost every mob in Moria has some buff or other so this makes the skill very useful. The previously underpowered Cleave aoe skill has been replaced by Rend. Rend does a big chunk of damage over time to a group of mobs. Allowing for the dot it is an extremely high damage skill and is very cheap in terms of fervour and energy. On the fervour front the opening up of another class trait slot has allowed me to slot a fourth trait from the berserker line increasing Throg's fervour mode generation from 1 pip every five seconds to 1 pip every 4 seconds giving lots more fervour to use the higher damage aoe skills. Taken together these changes have greatly increased a Champions aoe damage output and I find myself happily wading into groups of three and four mobs to finish them off in record time.

Needless to say I got carrie away with Throg' snew found uberness and an attempt to solo a level 53 elite Uruk from the Goblin camp beside Dolven View did not end well. Champions have never been particularly good at soloing elites and it seems that this aspect of our character at least has not changed.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Does anyone know what happened 3D sound in games?

The oldest part of my gaming PC is the sound system comprising of a 6 year old Soundblaster Audigy and a set of Creative quadrophonic speakers.

3D sound with environmental audio effects used be a big deal. I can still remember the first time while playing an FPS that I heard footsteps behind me and spun around to answer my would be assailant with a shotgun blast. In terms of sheer immersion I can honestly say that high quality sound has always sucked me in far more more than high quality graphics.

Yet sound cards and 3D sound seem to have become the forgotten side of computer gaming. Many modern games don't support environmental audio or 3D at all. Those that do often offer half hearted support - the rear channels play ambient musak. Even games that make an effort to support 3D sound sometimes get it wrong. In Bioshock for example there were some shockingly bad examples of positional audio. Certain sound effects actually had a dead spot - they would disappear altogether as you spun around.

On the hardware front sound cards seem to have become moribund. Although Creative and other manufacturers continue to bring out ever Higher Fi versions of their cards game reviewers and hardware sites these days almost universally recommend using the on-board sound from your PC motherboard.

I have been through three different motherboards and processors since I first got my Audigy and each time I have tried out the on-board sound to see how it compared. In every case the answer is that it did not. The atmosphere, depth and liveliness I get from my Audigy is just not there with on board sound. It reminds me of the comparison between a camera phone and a proper digital camera. The number of megapixels may be the same but the picture quality is simply not present in a camera phone.

I have thought about upgrading my Audigy on several occasions but in the absence of better support for 3D environmental audio from modern games there doesn't seem to be much point. I must also confess to a reticence about upsetting my current sound set-up. It took me several years to get it working stably. While Creative have been the leaders in gaming sound for some time their drivers have often been awful. For a while whenever I had a compatibility problem with a game I instinctively looked first at my sound card. Thankfully I finally hit on a stable working diver configuration a few years back and I am loath to change it again.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Lotro: Volume 1 Completed

I'm not up for a long blog post but I thought I should mark Throg's completion of Volume 1 of the Epic quest. Book 15 Chapter 12 brings Vol 1 to a close and finally wraps up the tragic tale of Laerdan and his daughter. Most of book 15 is a bit tedious consisting mainly of riding up and down the high moor on various errand quests but the final chapter is a doo hickey. Its is a roller coaster ride of excellent instance design that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way through. Throg went in with a Kin group equipped with Ventrillo and we still wiped twice on the first boss. Getting our strategy right and killing him was just the beginning though - you begin a dangerous trawl through corridors and rooms filled with challenging encounters and we were on the edge of our seat for the full hour or so that it took us to work out way to the final boss. Terrific stuff. Nice rewards too - a useful piece of armour, a new title that for once actually means something, a few novelty items (cloak and picture) and best of all a new tough pony that can take more blows before unhorsing its rider. Great stuff and many thanks due to the kin mates who helped Throg get though it.

Its is funny how many of the earlier chapters didn't make sense at the time but having finally completed the story arc it all falls into place.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Two reflections about McDonald's

Inspired by Bill Harris's story about bringing his son to McD's for breakfast.

Reflection #1

Have you ever noticed that the toys which come with McDonalds happy meals are exceptionally well made, much higher quality than the tat you get in discount shops? In addition they ususally have some trick that immediately grabs your attention like a doll that sings the first three words of the latest hit song or a toy car with working electric windows. However the most amazing thing about McDonalds happy meal toys is that they provide precisely 5 minutes of play value, no more no less. I suppose they are designed to keep kids entertained for as long as it takes to eat a McDonalds meal. Indeed I have found that there is no point in taking these toys home with you. The kids have generally exhausted their play value by the time you are ready to leave. How they engineer such precisely contolled utility into each toy amazes me. A triumph of design, every single one.


Reflection #2

A former boss of mine who's job involved much global travel but who was unfortunately given to fairly conservative eating habits confessed to me once that McDonalds was the saviour of the picky eating travller.

It is true. No matter what far flung corner of the world you find yourself in you are bound to find the welcoming inverted W. Spurning local delicacies (which doubtless involve generous helpings of sheep eyeball) you can tuck into a Big Mac and Fries secure in the knowledge no one has ever heard of anyone who got food poisoning from McDonalds.

I had occasion to put this theory to the test myself last year while on Holiday in Hong Kong with my family. It was wonderful. It was exotic. It was strange. It was a bit too strange for my kids unfortunately who refused to eat the glorious oriental dishes on offer in restaurants ("It doesn't taste like Chinese food at home Daddy!"). The kids got hungrier and crankier and my wife and I were genuinely worried about how we would feed them.

Then we saw a McDonalds in the distance. We were saved.

"Come on kids the happy meals are on me" I said.

"Daddy"

"Yes"

"You know how you are always telling us that fast food is bad for you"

"Yes"

"Well you are right. We don't like McDonalds any more"

I didn't know whether to rejoice or despair. We ate in Pizza hut.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Lotro: Sometimes it's the little things.

On my first foray into Moria I decide to do a bit of exploring. While admiring the cavernous surroundings I missed my footing and fell through a crack in the road en route to a place called Dolven View. I plummeted into the chasm below.

Stunned but still alive I stumbled around in the dark trying to find a way back up to the inhabited regions on platforms far above my head. I had nearly given up when I spotted a dwarven guide with a "quest in progress" ring above his head. I had no memory of starting such as quest but I clicked on him anyway.

"Are ye trying to get to Dolven View" he asked

"Yes, yes" I shouted back

"This isn't the right way at all" he said "Turn back and go up that ramp to the South" You'll find another guide there and he'll tell you where to go next."

Sure enough there was another guide and sure enough he and further guides directed me back to civilisation complete with helpful warnings abut cracks in the roadway.

Superb.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lotro: A Busy Weekend for Throg.

Highlights included:

- Doing everything up to the final chapter (book 15, Chapter 12) of Volume 1. Most of book 15 consisted of riding up and down (and up and down) the high moor. I love the book quests but I wish Turbine would cut out the pointless padding. At least the final chapter is supposed to be a great challenging instance bring the tragic tale of Laerdan and his daughter to a close. I will wait till I can organise a good kin group for this.

- Getting into Moria after completing Book 1 of Volume 2. It's a very impressive massive underground city. Crumbling now of course but I caught a glimpse of its earlier splendour from doing a session play quest where I got to run away from the Balrog who trashed the place.

I did a few easy quests in Moria and took my first goat ride but at level 51 most of the quests were still yellow/orange to me indicating that I needed to level up a bit first.

- Back to Eregion and I did all the quests from Echad Eregion getting up to level 52 in the process. T

Throg relaxing at a camp-fire after a hard days questing around Echad Eregion:



- On to Echad Mirobel to do the pre-quests for "The Library" and "The School" 3 man instances.

- Being fortunate to get into a pick up group for the library while doing the pre-quests. Throg (lvl 52 CHampion) a lvl 53 Minstrel and Lvl 53 Burglar.

There are three bosses in the place with a bunch of trash. The encounters are pretty similar - clear out the adds and kill the boss. Burglar crowd control (addle?) was handy for holding the bosses while Champ aoe made short work of the adds (after they were pulled away from stunned bosses of course). The big boss in the end was actually the easiest because he didn't aggro when we pulled his adds (flocks of birds) - we simply peeled the birds off in groups from the Balcony and killed them before tanking and spanking the boss.

Lest I make it sound like a flawless encounter I must own up to foolishly attempting to tank with shield and glory mode. Suffice to say a couple of deaths convinced me that a Champion is poor at holding multi-mob aggro. Swapping to dual Axes and fervour mode for all out aoe damage was much better.

I got a few drops from the instance but nothing particularly useful for Throg. Nevertheless it was great to end the weekend with a bit of fun fellowship play. Three mans are great because it is easy to get a group and everyone feels useful. Iam looking forward to having a go at "The School" next.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Curious Observation

I logged into Team Fortress 2 tonight for a bit of mindless shooting and a curious thought struck me.

Team Fortress 2 is as good and as fresh as it ever was.

Call of Duty 4 on the other hand (the other great multiplayer shooter from last year) feels a bit old.

CoD 4 is a terrific game but it was designed to keep you entertained until Cod5 or Cod6 came out. TF2 on the other hand was designed to last for a long time and it shows.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Poetic Spam

I know I shouldn't give this publicity but one particular spam commenter made me chuckle. Following a link back to the computer generated blog behind a recent piece of Spam I was surprised to discover that it was full of poetry. Original computer generated poetry. Here's a sample:

saying, - she said Marvin, almost pathetic sense in that it Damogran,
- said Ford, - Did the other Vogons. a large table with a moment that Benji mouse.
- said Arthur. - OK, sure you need that, renewed worse
was later one of wildest dreams... the last Id


While it may be that the top chess playing computers are now better than humans I think it is safe to say that it will be a few years yet before a computer wins the Nobel prize for literature.

Lotro: Where have all the group quests gone?

At level 51 Throg has comleted almost every quest in Northern Eregion as well as Book 1 of Volume 2. I guess he has done about 40 quests and completed 10 or so quest chains. In all of this there was only one group quest (can't recall the name but it involved killing the Elite Master Wood Troll who was responsible for corrupting the holly trees). A few quests mis-labelled "small group" were in fact easily solo-able as they involved killing lone signature mobs only. Where are all the group quests?

I asked in Kin chat and a player who has already got to level 58 (time to empty that bucket Amfi ;)) surprised me by confirming that most of MoM is in fact soloable.

Hmm...

A defining feature of the early days of Lotro for me was the number of great quest chains which started with solo quests and ended in one or more tough group quests with high quality rewards. This pattern persisted through the Lone Lands, North Downs, Trollshaws and into the Misty Mountains. It fell apart a bit in Angmar because the quest chains were a mess originally but that eventually got sorted in the great Angmar Revamp. Even though some folks complained when the ran out of solo quests I loved that system. I found I could keep myself busy soloing the starter quests while keeping an eye on the LFF channel for someone doing a fellowship quest I was ready for. I had some great experiences pugging my way through the mid levels of Lotro this way. It trained folks into grouping and it did engender a co-operative spirit that I believe persists in Lotro to this day.

Of course things became more difficult as the bulk of the population moved on and it became harder to get a group to complete low level fellowship quests. I believe that Turbine subsequently revamped a lot of the lower level stuff to make it soloable in order to overcome this problem. That is understandable but I had hoped that the advent of MoM with everyone levelling up together again might allow them to re-establish the pattern of Quest chains leading to fellowship quests. Sadly it looks like Turbine decided not to do this favouring solo-able content instead.

On the positive side there is always the book quest line which has some great fellowship content and I hear interesting stories of some very enjoyable 3 man instances. There is no room for error in a 3 man group, so I am looking forward to some challenging fun.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lotro: Throg' s First Legendary Weapon.

I have been pretty good at avoiding online guides for MoM so I had only hazy notions about legendary weapons when Throg was offered his first one at the end of volume 2 chapter 1. To be honest I found it a bit confusing at first. None of the weapons on offer looked particularly impressive but I had to choose one so, Throg being a Dwarf, I picked the axe and then brought it to the dwarven forge master for identification. The related quests left me with a basket of upgrade bits (called relics) so I duly set about populating three upgrade slots (setting, rune and gem) with the best relics I had. A scroll alllowed me to name the weapon and change the damage type.

So far so good but it was at this point I spotted that my legendary weapon also comes with inherent bonuses (called Legacies). Sadly this axe has a useless set of legacies including several bonuses to the virtually unused "Hedge" skill and a bonus to the least popular "Ardour" stance. I regret wasting my best relics on the weapon but no doubt Throg will stumble across others in his continuing adventures.

At first this purple quality legendary axe was no better than a standard purple quality axe but the next quest sent me out to fight with weapon so that it could gain experience and level up. It seems that levelling up the axe earns legacy points which can be used to increase the damage or enhance the legacy buffs. An hour or so of questing in Eregion brought me up a quarter level to finally hit 51 and my axe up six levels to level 7. It seems that weapons gain levels a lot quicker than players (at least at the beginning) which is probably no bad thing.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

DM Osbon's "The Agency" interview

If any game is going to knock WOW off its pedestal as the dominant mmo it will need to do something that WOW doesn't do and cannot easily copy. One likely strategy is the console MMO. There is a persistent rumour about Lotro being ported to consoles but I am not convinced they will be able to simplify the interface enough to fit it onto a console. A game that is designed for consoles from the ground up is more likely to succeed I think.

Sony seems to think so too and their new MMO "The Agency" is being designed for PS3 and PC (notice which comes first). The game has been described as "pick up and play" and an "online persistent shooter" both of which suggestions seem to be at odds with the game's claim to be an mmorpg but nevertheless we have been promised that the characters will develop rpg like abilities.

DM Osbon over at Construed has snagged an interview with Matt Staroscik, Game Designer & Lead Writer for "The Agency" and there are a few juicy snippets in there. Talk of quests, team play and crafting - Intriguing. This is beginning to sound like a lot more than just a persistent online shooter.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lotro: Fun in Eregion

I had a busy real life schedule last week so Throg has only been able to sample the Mines of Moria content in small doses. Nevertheless what I have seen has been good so far. After following a few quest chains in the eregion region Throg has made his way down to the ominous black pool at the entrance ot the mines proper. The pool is fetid and ominous so Throg decided to dive in and see if he could wake whatever creature lived in its murky depths. The Watcher was clearly not tempted by one slightly dented dwarf and Throg made it to the othe rside without so much as a nibble. Perhaps we will meet the infamous creature later.

I believe I need to complete the first chapter of volume 2 to actually get into the mines but I held off completing that while I dealt with a bunch half orcs who were harassing the dwarven expedition into the mines. These "expeditonary" quests are interesting in that they are only available before the expedition departs - i.e. before you complete book 1. They are entirely optional and are easy enough to solo at level 50 as long as you avoid getting swamped by adds in the caves where the half orcs live. The rewards are nothing too special but I took an ear ring because it had stats better suited to a Champion (might, agility and melee critical) than the one I was currently wearing. The fact that you could only do these quests before entering Moria is a nice touch - It gives them a greater sense of urgency and makes the world seem a bit more dynamic.

Its strange to see Lotro crowded again with groups camping poular quest objectives. Some folk get annoyed at the overcrowding but I like the buzz it brings to the game. If I get a quest to "kill 10 orcs" I generally try to pug up with other players on the same objective so we can share in each others kills. I have a sneaky suspicion that many of the people returning to the game are a bit rusty because I have noticed a drop in the standard of pug group play a feature than has normally been unusually good in Lotro. Nevertheless people remain polite and friendly and that for me is the most important thing.

Throg is about half way to level 51 and I felt a minor moment of panic as I noticed that some of my kin had already reached level 53 and were forming groups for instances I had never even heard of. Oh no , Throg was being left behind. Thankfully I managed to calm down and sanity prevailed. Lotro is a game best enjoyed at your own pace. Some level quickly some slowly but we will all meet up again soon enough at the level cap. In the meantime we can chat and have a laugh and help each other out as best we can.

I also started an Elf Rune Master to try out that new class but the less said about that the better. I read over the skill descriptions and figured I had a fair understanding of how the class worked so in order to test myself I ran at the first yellow mob I found (yellow = slightly higher level). I reckoned the combination of damage output with healing ability would be an instant win but it proved not to be the case. I was defeated easily by a boar in my very first battle!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kicking the Corpse of PC Gaming

For some time now I have agonised over whether or not to upgrade my gaming PC. I doubt if my existing 3 year old hardware will be able to cope with next years games but as I watch the centre of gaming influence desert the PC for consoles I have developed a gnawing feeling that I am backing the wrong horse by spending more money on PC gaming.

PC hardware prices have never been cheaper (at least in euro zone) so I could go out and invest in a new graphics card as a prelude to a complete system replacement. Alternatively I could use the cash to buy an Xbox.

Yet today I see an article in the Inquirer suggesting that the market for gaming hardware is booming. Perhaps there is life in the old dog yet.

One interesting point from the article is that the high price of HDTVs is proving a disadvantage for consoles. That is a significant issue for me actually. If I get a console I really need to get a TV to play it on unless I want a nightly fight with my wife over whether or not she can watch Desperate Housewives. The price of TVs has become just silly since the advent of flat screens. Remember when you could get a decent family TV for €250? Nowadays that would only buy you something slightly bigger than a postage stamp.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lotro: Mines of Moria goes live

Throg's first view of the new region of Pend Eregion:


Nothing else to report really as I had to go to work minutes after this was taken. I didn't expect to be playing at all today because my copy of MoM hadn't arrived. I patched the game anyway (2 hours even after applying the pre-downloaded patches) before I set off for work. Then just as patching was finished the postman arrived with my copy of MoM. Needless to say I just had to log in for 15 minutes in order to see the new zone.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Throg does Thorog (or rather Thorog does Throg)

Since witnessing the grotesque resurrection of the dead dragon Thorog at the hands of Drugoth it has been on the minds of Throg and his fellow adventurers to travel to Helegrod where the beast had alighted and to consign the undead lizard back to the abyss of death. They had put off tackling the creature because the kinship does not have the roster of 24 active heroes that estimates suggest would be required to down the beast. Also an extraordinary outbreak of Balrogs's in Eastern Angmar has commanded all attention in recent months. Now that Gandalf's fellowship are setting forth from Rivendell towards the Mines of Moria it seems likely they will need our aid on their travels, therefore it was decided to team up with friends from another kin to try and deal with the unfinished business of Thorog.

Throg gathered with his companions in Rivendell where spirits were bolstered by the news of yet another Balrog's demise. Hearts filled with hope, they set forth to Steps of Gram and the dragon's lair. The minions who guarded the entrance to the fortress had already been scattered by an earlier sortie so all that remained was a final encounter with the Drugoth and his Dragon.

Entering the main courtyard we could see the terrifying beast peached high above us. Rebirth has not removed the palour of death from the creature's visage and it is all the more terrible for it. Drugoth, the Death Monger stood before us in the shadow of the dragon and sneered at our motley fellowship. Incensed by these insults we set to with axe, sword and bow and quickly put the gaunt lord to flight but not before he called down the mighty dragon.

In his half living state Thorog breathes neither the fire nor ice but his instead his breath engulfs victims with the pure evil of shadow. His teeth claws and tail are just as deadly as those of any living dragon. Indeed they are made more terrible by Thorog's habit of fixing his eye on a target seconds before unleashing his most devastating attack. If the hapless target of Thorog's eye remains within sight of the dragon they and anyone unfortunate enough to be standing close by would surely die when the beast attacks. It took all of the courage that Throg and companions had brought with them from Rivendell to overcome the knee buckling fear the dragons eye causes and dive for cover before the dragon could strike.

Throg got the eye several times and managed to avoid killing any of his companions but did die himself on an occasion when he ran for a far away corner and did not manage to get off the pedestal into hiding before the dragon attacked. Sadly he was less successful at performing the champions key task of clobbering the dragon when it reared up to pounce. The creature moves constantly and what with knockbacks and running in and out of Hopeful Heart to deal with hope wipes it is hard for melee fighters to stay in place on the beast to be ready and able to clobber at the right instant. It is a fight for hunters who can rain damage down upon the dragon from outside the range of many of his attacks.

Sadly our heroes did not vanquish the dragon, deaths from his roving eye and the constant pressure from hordes of spiders that Thorog calls upon to hold the party while he goes to his perch for healing proved our undoing. Nevertheless full credit must go to the officers who co-ordinated the attempt with a motley crew of adventurers many of whom were inexperienced (like Throg it must be said). Under their guidance all were well marshalled and the tricky mechanic of "Thorog's eye" was well explained. The class balance was perhaps not ideal being short on hunters, captains and burglars.


Aside: My first time in Helegrod and an interesting conclusion to "the Shadows of Angmar" before the "Mines of Moria" expansion is released tomorrow. Who knows when we will come back? All attention is likely to focus on Moria for the next while. Our casual friendly kinship would find it hard to maintain a regular 24 man raid roster. Nevertheless I suspect that we will be back eventually to kill Thorog. After all, with three wipes last night, now its personal.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Iron Grip Warlord

Thanks to Melf_Himself for bringing my attention to Iron Grip Warlord an independent game from Isotyx. The first map can be donloaded and played for free including online play while the full game costs $24.95. Well worth the price in my opinion.

Iron Grip Warlord is a curious hybrid of rts, fps and tower defence game set in a steam punk universe. It has standard rts elemetnt of resource gathering (by killing stuff) and structure building, you also play in FPS mode yourself as one of the troops. The tower defence bit comes from the fact that you must defend your base against an endless succession of enemy troops and armour who thread their way through your city to annihilate your base. In practise it plays like Company of Heroes on acid and is a total blast as you run around building, repairing and shooting all the while trying to plug gaps in your defences.

Best thing of all is that it is designed for multiplayer co-op mode which is tremendous fun. I have only played disorganised "pick up games" where it is pretty much every man for himself but I imagine that the game would lend itself very well to organised team play.

In single player mode your team gets padded out with bots but they are pretty dumb leaving you to do everything yourself so it is much harder than multiplayer. Being a masochist I have spent several hours trying unsuccessfully to win a round on medium difficulty settting. I haven't got there yet but I am getting closer! My current strategy relies on careful placement of land mines and judicious use of the bazooka for killing enemy armour before it gets to the top of the hill.

Oh by the way it took me ages to figure out how to get extra ammo. If you are in the same dilemma then you need to build a support station. These are great as they replenish health and ammo. I reccommend making one in a safe spot first thing and running back regularly to restock.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Did Lotro Screw up in its Implementation of Titles?

Some time ago in a post about artificially creating value I discussed the way that Guild Wars dangles hard to get titles in front of players as carrots to keep them motivated while World of Warcraft dangles epic gear with uber stats. At the time I felt that titles and other vanity rewards were a better way to go because they don't create an unbridgeable gap between hard core and casual players.

Lotro has gone in for titles in a big way. Just look at an incomplete list of titles you can get within the game here. It seems that you cannot trip over the corpse of a dead wolf in Middle Earth without earning some new apellation. Some titles do indeed represent major achievements like defeating a raid boss but there are so many glorious sounding titles for minor achievements that all titles have become devalued. Many players don't even bother to display their titles and fewer still care what the various titles mean. Contrast this with Guild Wars where titles are harder to come by but are genuinely valued by players.

Its probably too late to change now but it seems a pity to me. In my opinion Lotro has missed a real oportunity to make titles a desirable goal. They have managed to devalue all titles by making too many of them and making most of them too easy to get.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review an older game: Sacrifice from Shiny Entertainment

Zubon over at Kill Ten Rats has thrown out a challenge for bloggers to review an older game. I think it's a great initiative. I do have a problem though I am not very good at reviews. I am well able (and often willing) to give an opinion but there is a world of difference between a hastily scribbled opinion and a well thought out, systematic, structured review.

In the sister blog to mindbending puzzles I get around this difficulty through the use of "instant book reviews" which allow me to dress up my half though out opinions as a kind of quasi-review. Its a lazy cop out but it works so I am going to use the same formula here. Therefore I now present the mpb instant game review of Shiny's action rts: Sacrifice released way back in 2000.

Sacrifice from Shiny Entertainment. This 2000 masterpiece remains one of the most beautifully crafted PC games of all time. Everything from the storyline to the sublime array of creatures and spells just oozes creativity and artistry. The action/rts hybrid format is intimidating at first: you must learn to juggle your own spells while managing an army of creatures as well as keeping an eye on resources. Once you get over the steep learning curve though there is an awesomely beautiful game to be discovered. Even the single player campaign offers superb re playability as there are many paths through the game each supported by a dynamically evolving storyline. Now that the game has been re-released as one of Good Old Games launch titles you may even be able to find partners for a spot of multi-player.

Lest you assume my mini-review is the sentimental product of less than perfect recollection I will remind you that is only a month since I played through a full single player campaign. I can happily assert that the game stands up to modern scrutiny and remains a stunning achievement in gaming.

On a closing note I refer you to a heartfelt lament about Sacrifice's lack of commercial success written by Kieron Gillen of Rock Paper Shotgun fame. He concludes:

Sacrifice reminds me exactly how good, how imaginative, how brilliant it’s possible for a videogame to be and it’s clear that no-one’s going to spend serious money on making a game like it ever again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Predicting the Gastronomic Singularity

Proponents of the technological singularity hypothesis predict a near future event in which in which advances in artificial intelligence will fuel an unprecedented step change in technology which will utterly change mankind and our place in the universe. I am pleased to report the discovery of yet another near future singularity but this time one which will have an altogether more satisfying and wholesome outcome.

In a moment of ease I found my mind wandering back to memorable meals of my recollection. It soon became apparent that while I could recall quite a few memorable meals in recent times (staring with a particularly satisfying breakfast this morning) I could recall fewer and fewer memorable meals from times gone by. Spotting the similarity with the "time between paradigm shifting events" which underlines the technological singularity hypothesis I immediately decided to apply the same analysis to gastronomic events and I present here the fruit of my labours:

First a table of memorable meals:
Memorable Meals Time before Present (hours) Hours to next memorable meal
Breakfast this morning 2
Lunch yesterday 21 19
Sunday Dinner 45 24
Dinner Party Last Week 230 185
The last night of our Holidays 2880 2650
Christmas Last Year 7440 4560
My 40th Birrthday Party 35184 27744
Our Wedding 122640 87456
First Cake I remember 350400 227760

Next a plot of the time between memorable meals (click to make bigger):


I think you will accept that an obvious trend emerges here. The linear trend (on a logarithmic scale) is surely proof that the time between memorable meals is reducing. In so far as Good, Vinge, Kurzweil and others have interpreted the curve of paradigm shifts against time to point towards a forthcoming technological singularity I think we can only conclude that a gastronomic singularity is clearly on the cards here. A time of such rapid and unprecedented change (in my eating habits) that we cannot even begin to imagine what meals will be like after it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lotro: Book 12 revisited and some fowl play

Yesterday evening Throg joined a kinship group to help a colleague complete Book 12 of Volume 1. This was the last book I completed before taking a break from the game and I remember it being particularly challenging. Last nights run through was very smooth though a far cry from the multiple wipes I remember from the first time around.

It was so much easier in fact that I have been trying to figure out what made such a big difference. I reckon several factors came together: We are all a bit more experienced with a number of players who have already completed the book, our gear is bit better all round (lotro is not particularly gear intensive but every little helps) and we were all using Ventrilo voice chat.


The group consisted of a minstrel, two captains, two champions and a lore master. There was no guardian to steal aggro from so the two champions went to town with all out area of effect damage and cut through hordes of mobs in rapid time. Normally this would be a suicidal strategy but with heavy buffing from two captains and healing from a well geared minstrel it worked a charm.

The final instance ("Weapons of the Enemy") deserves particular mention. You face a lone boss in a courtyard surrounded by a pillared walkway. The floor of the courtyard causes moderate fire damage over time. The boss nukes anyone he can see with area of effect fire balls. You can hide behind a pillar to dodge fireballs but that area is patrolled by ghosts who silence any casters (ie your healer) who try to shelter there. On top of all this the boss has some kind of invulnerability buff which he puts up, I think, if he is not engaged in melee. On my first go at the book we wiped and wiped on this mission. With our minstrel almost permanently silenced we ended up suicide tanking the boss in relays (it was a relatively quick run back from the resurrection spot). This time round we got it first time with no hassle. It went so quickly that I amn't entirely sure what went right but I think it was a combination of our minstrel standing inside the courtyard away from the silencing ghosts and one of the champions permanently clobbering the boss to prevent him using any nasty abilities. The rest of us just piled on the damage and the boss went down quickly. Book 12 completed in record time.

Earlier in the day Throg joined a fun kinship event. An officer ran around in chicken mode trying to achieve a sequence of ever more preposterous objectives while a raid group of 20 or so kinnies were tasked with protecting him. Whenever the chicken died everyone had to make their way back to the Kinhouse for a swig from the festival keg. In addition to woozy drunkenness this also transports the imbiber to a random region of middle earth from whence they must make their way back to the chicken run. We had much confusion (headless chickens?) and several feathery deaths but in the end the chicken managed to make a complete circuit of the dangerous Misty Mountains. In fact it was easier to keep the chicken alive in those dangerous parts than in the starter region of the shire because high level players do not automatically aggro mobs in the shire making it harder to distract their attention from the quick footed chicken. A fun time was had by all and a number of old friends returned to Lotro for the event, a hopeful sign of things to come with the upcoming expansion imminent.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lotro: Book 14 Complete

Throg managed to complete book 14 last night with the help of some generous kin fellows which sets him up nicely for the release of MoM and book 15.

Chapter 12 (The skin of Bregmor) still proved somewhat trouble-some and we wiped once to the rapidly re-spawning adds of the Nemesis level end boss. The second time around our dps heavy group (Guardian, 2 Champions, Hunter, Captain and Minstrel) managed to fight our way through but it was skin of teeth stuff. There were several deaths including the main tank and Throg ended up tanking the boss. I suspect the only reason we survived is that one of my colleagues realised that not all the adds respawn. Killling the non respawning mobs reduced the damage to manageable proportions and allowed us to overcome the encounter.

I think I am learning to play my champion well enough but I still lack the ability to read a fight like this in order to plan a good strategy. This is probably due to lack of experience but I will salvage some pride by pointing out that playing a melee character doesn't help. In a big fight Throg is usually stuck up the mobs rear-end with a very restricted view of the overall position.

Book 14 ends with another big instance, this time in the new zone of Mirobel. On paper this looks harder than chapter 12 with lots of tough mobs including healers and some with nasty stun abilities but we actually had an easier time of it. We cleared our way in carefully to avoid any disastrously big pulls. There was a potentially difficult fight with a sorceress who forms a healing blood pact with her two adds but Throg got the job of pulling the adds out of range (to the doorway) while the rest of the group killed her. Thanks go to Lotro Wiki for the strategy suggestion.

Throg got a nice set of shoulders for completing book 14: Hadoranc. Compare those with Gloom bane shoulders from the Rift and you will see that they are almost as good apart from the set bonus. The set bonus for the raid set is very nice of course but I like the way you can still get very decent gear just by doing book quests.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Lotro:Torhammas

Throg is not a dwarf to turn down the prospect of a good fight so when a fellow adventurer asked for help in overcoming the wayward mammoth Torhammas our champion friend was quick to volunteer. The four strong fellowship consisted of a guardian, a hunter a second champion and Throg himself. Despite the lack of healing this DPS heavy group made short work of the Mammoth. The Guardian grabbed the beasts attention and held it while Throg laid into it from behind. The other Champion and Hunter quickly despatched the mob of Gauradan's who tried to come to the creature's aid. Fair dues to the doughty guardian who not alone endured the full fury of mammoth's tusks and bone crushing feet but also managed to hold the mobs attention while his three heavy hitting companions unleashed their full fury. Throg did catch the monsters eye at the very end of the fight but that was probably for the best, the brave guardian's armour being somewhat dented by that point. After the battle dice were cast to divide up the spoils and Throg won a tuft of the beasts fur that a tailor might use to make a pretty cloak. Throg is no tailor though so he was happy enough to pass the furry morsel on to one of his more nimble fingered colleagues. (Cloak Picture borrowed from this thread)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Bamboozling Cash Machines

Cash machines (ATMs) in this country love €50 notes (€50 is about $64 or £40 at current exchange rates). Requests for hundred's of euros are usually dispensed in wads of €50's and though most machines also dispense €20's stocks of this lower denomination run out quickly giving rise to a "please select a multiple of €50" message.

I guess that keeping the bulk of cash in one large denomination simplifes operational logistics but it does not mesh well with my personal spending habits. I tend to use a credit or debit card for most purchases over €20. When I spend actually currency it tends to be of the loose change variety: €1 for a newspaper, €2 for a cup of coffee and so on. I can assure your from personal experience that it is a rare vendor who has the professionalism to keep up their customer friendly smile when proffered a €50 note for a €1 purchase.

The foregoing has led to my becoming an accomplished practitioner of the ATM Bamboozlement game. The aim of the game is as follows:

To Bamboozle an ATM into giving you low denomination notes while still making a total withdrawal which is as close as possible to the amount you require.

A secondary rule is that the total amount must be withdrawn in one transaction. This rule is justified by the need to minimise ATM transaction charges but it is also a vital element in maintaining the challenge of the game.

It all boils down to the amount you choose to withdraw. Clearly a request for €100 or €200 will result in your wallet being filled with hard to spend €50 notes. On the other hand a request for €60 is a good play while €80 is an even better one. Both of these requests are likely to be met with a wad of €20's but also leave the tantalising possibility of getting a €10 note from one of the rare ATMs that still stocks this denomination.

Be careful, ATMs do not always play fair. Yesterday I tried to withdraw €110, thinking this to be a master play. The machine refused to comply responding instead with a request for an amount "that can be dispensed in €10, €20 and €50 notes only". There are many ways to dispense €110 using those denominations and in any case I am sure the reference to €10 notes is bogus as I have never seen this particular machine dispense anything smaller than a twenty. Clearly this message was an attempt to dis-orient me and put me off my game.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Lotro: Book 14 Highs and Lows

Low: Chapter 1 Being sent all around Eriador on errand missions.

High: Chapter 1 Ending with a challenging but do-able instance.

Low: Chapter 2 - That @£$$%% Elf Laerdan. After all I have done for him!

High: Chapter 3 - Hmm... Laedan's diary, lets have a peek.

High: Chapter 4 - While reading Laerdan's journal I imagine yourself to be an Angmarim soldier guarding the tower that Throg and his companions assaulted way back in Chapter 12. Yes its a trivial quest but the concept is way cool.

Low: Sadly the instance ends just before the "good guys" arrive. I was looking forward to seeing Throg bursting through the doors to attack me.

High: Chapter 6 - Another scene from the journal this time I imagine I am the Elf Laerdan fighting hordes of enemies in order to save my daughter. Laerdan is tough but he is totally outnumbered. This must be one of the toughest solo quests in the game. I took me three goes to complete but I really enjoyed it. (Spoiler - if you are struggling with the last bit make sure you keep an eye on the quest tracker)

Low: Chapter 7: This quest is blocked until a server wide effort manages to collect 70,000 pieces of ring lore.

High: My server has already collected the ring lore. I can go straight into the quest!

Low: Chapter 8: More pointless travelling

High: Chapter 9: An instance in the Barrow Downs, an area Throg spent a lot of time in back in his teens and early twenties. Did the instance in a pick up group without too many problems.

Low: Chapter 10: Another pointless trip to Celondim

High: Chapter 11: Off to Forochel, I really like this area.

High: Chapter 12: A tough instance, prepare to be challenged.

Low: My pickup group with minstrel, loremaster, hunter, 2 Captains and 1 Champion (Throg) has no guardian to tank.

High: I'm the tank. My first ever proper tanking job with Throg. Time to equip a shield and finally discover what all those little used Champion tanking skills actually do.

High: I don't actually suck as a tank even against a tough Nemesis mob.

Low: We wipe three times before giving up. I don't think Throg made a bad tank but in hindsight we probably gave up too much DPS by putting our only Champion into low damage tanking mode. It might have been better to let one of the Captains Tank and have Throg revert to his more ususal DPS role.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lotro Notes

Despite my commitment to limit my objectives in Lotro I have been playing quite a lot over the last few days. No raiding but a couple of kinship forays into Annuminas combined with a lot of questing in Forochel. I have grown to like Forochel. At first glance its snowy appearance is reminiscent of the Misty Mountains but whereas Misty is a dangerous barren wasteland Forochel teems with settlements and quests and even has a few instances to boot. In point of fact it comes pretty close to Bree land in terms of the amout of stuff that is going on. Most of the quests are solo friendly but there a reasonable number of group quests with decent rewards for someone of mid 40's level. At level 50 Throg has outgrown most of the rewards on offer but it is still a very enjoyable zone to quest in.

A lot of my fellow bloggers have abandoned Lotro (although Khan and Thallian always put in a good word) so I was pleased to stumble across a good lotro blog I hadn't read before: MMeow . After reading a guide from from MMeow about Lotro's equipment rarity I realise that I am wrong to call typical raid quality "teal" items epics. The official description of teal items is "incomparable" while the term epic is reserved for a very small number of rare drops that are coloured orange.

Lotro Europe's welcome back weekend starts tomorrow with free play for returning players and a 25% XP bonus. With War still in its honeymoon period and a major update of WOW around the corner Lotro is going to have a tough job enticing folks back.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lotro: Forochel Questing

Yesterday being a bank holiday here in Ireland I had plenty of time to do some questing around the Forochel area. All the quests seem to give reputation rewards with either Thorin's Hall or the Lossoth Eskimo's who live in this frozen land. Throg is a dwarf so my Thorin's hall rep is already pretty good but Lossoth rep is useful not least because it opens up a number of quick travel routes around the freezing waters. Sadly I probably won't get the friend status required until after I have completed most of the quests in the region.

I got as far as book 13 Chapter 6 with the aid of some kinsmates and a couple of others. We had to retrieve a book from the dourhand controlled icereave mine. Ice-reave is very reminiscent of Sarnur the Thorin's hall rep dungeon in Ered Luin. The mobs also drop the dourhand tabards but seem a little easier than in Sarnur so I could imagine this being the preferred new zone for grinding Thorin's Hall rep.

We did a few more quests in the same group - earning an epic hammer reward for killing Arnoth the Exacting in Icereave. In truth the hammer is not all that Epic but it's Beleriand Damage type is not very common and may come in useful for mobs who have special resistances.

I got a second epic unexpectedly when a kinsmate appeared literally out of nowhere as we were entering icerave and gave me a dragonscale breastplate. How is that for a welcome back present after six months of not playing? I am very lucky to have found such a helpful, casual friendly kinship.

Near-raid quality crafted items can be bought on the auction house and prices seem to have fallen in anticipation of the impact of Mines of Moria. I'll probably buy a few bits and pieces but I don't actually feel that badly off gear-wise. My virtue traits are another story. My currently equipped virtues stop at levels six, seven or eight but I notice that while I was away the ceiling on most virtues seems to have gone up to nine or ten. A fully upgraded virtue is probably equivalent to a piece of epic armour so they are worth having but I have come to realise that earning virtues is the real grind of lotro. To get a virtue to level 10 requires thousands of mobs to be slaughtered. If I get bored of questing that's where I will have to focus my attention I reckon.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jumbled Thoughts On Re-subscribing to an MMO

My first session in Lotro after resubscribing reminded me of many of the things I don't like about mmos. I spend most of the time travelling to the far North of Forochel in order to continue the epic quest line with book 13. At the same time I was trying to refresh my memory of what all the skills in my bar do along with the significance of various trait and gear selections. It was all somewhat tedious and at the same time left me feeling a bit inadequate knowing that I have probably fallen far behind my kinship buddies who have been raiding regularly since I left.

Things perked up a bit when I finally got stuck into a few quests. The server seems quite a bit quieter than it used to be but there were still a few calls for assistance in the "looking for a Fellowship" channel. I have always considered pick up groups to be one of the strong points of Lotro so I joined one to help a lower level player overcome a quest mob.

Grouping is a bit of a dilemma for me. Without a doubt the opportunity to play together with other people is the best thing about mmos. Yet this is the one element I find hardest to reconcile with the rest of my life. It is not the so much the time involved as the exclusivity required when you are playing with others. A single player game can be saved or put on hold whenever real life demands attention. A game involving other people cannot be paused so easily.

Exclusivity is a problem in another sense. Since quitting EVE at the end of August I have been enjoying quite a number of single player games: Two Worlds, Rainbow Six Vegas, Sacrifice, XIII, Crysis Warhead, Praetorians and Spore. If I get sucked back in to an mmo I just won't have time for such a varied gaming experience. I know some folk manage to juggle various mmos but I have never managed it. I tend to find an mmo not only consumes all my gaming time but can intrude on other areas of my life as well. Sometimes I think I spend as much time browsing fan sites as playing.

How to proceed? I am going to try and rejoin the game in a limited way. A big part of this involves saying no to stuff. No I don't need to do every quest from this zone. No I don't need to get a perfect set of traits. No I don't need to complete my raid armour set. Instead I will set a few achievable objectives and pursue those. Completing the book quests seems like a good start.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A book reccommendation

I seem to be carrying the flag for my home town today but coincidentally I have just finished "The Inferior" by Peadar O Guilin another Dubliner. I may have been somewhat biased in my recent recommendation of WAR but I need no such incentive to heartily reccommend "The Inferior". It is a great piece of Science Fiction. Thoroughly entertaining.

What I meant to say was : WAR is Brilliant Buy it Now.

I have just become aware that GOA the European publishers of Warhammer Online are establishing a major support centre in my home town (Dublin) with the promise of 400 jobs. I guess that customer support is at the bottom of the food chain (why is that?) but in these recessionary times a job is a job and those 400 new taxpayers will help share the burden. Therefore with extreme prejudice I would like to point out that Warhammer online is the best game since tiddly winks and I would like you all to go out and buy it. Just be sure to buy the Euro version, even if you live in the U.S. Think of the added educational benefit of being able to converse in all those different languages (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish according to this page).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lotro Once More

I reactivated my Lotro subscription with a view to completing my outstanding book quests in preparation for the forthcoming release of Mines of Moria. Going back to an MMO is a funny experience, a bit like moving back in with your parents after living on your own. On the one hand there is a warm comfortable feeling of home but there are also memories of the boredom that inspired you to move on.

Lotro is pretty quiet these days. I wonder will many return for MoM.

Here's a picture of Throg in snowy Forochel:

I'm Not Giving up Blogging

Thanks to the Ancient Gaming Noob for drawing my attention to a recent Wired article in which Paul Boutin claims that blogging is a thing of the past.

Of course I don't agree but I do accept some of Paul's points. I agree that the time when you could "become famous" through blogging is probably over. If that is your motivation then you should probably pass over blogging and get with the next big thing be it twitter or face book or more likely something else that most of us haven't even heard of yet.

On the other hand there are many other reasons to keep a blog. It can be a personal creative outlet. It can be your very own soap box. You can use it as a kind of online diary. It can add a new dimension to your hobbies. It can be a social thing. You may be even be lucky enough to find a community of like minded bloggers.

Telling people to stop blogging because they have no chance of getting to the front page of Google is like telling amateur musicians not to bother because they have no chance of getting to Carnegie Hall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is Warhammer Online History?

Two well known bloggers Tobold and Melmoth announced their departure from Warhammer Online this week. Is this the beginning of the games decline or is it just natural turnover? I don't know. Other bloggers such as Syncaine, Keen and Saylah are still waxing lyrical about WAR, pointing out that this game seems to have really innovated in terms of making group play both fun and rewarding.

Not only do I not know but I must admit to being completely unqualified to express an opinion. I have never played WAR and I am currently going through an "anti-mmo" phase as indicated in my series of posts with the tag line "mmos are history". However, being unqualified to give an opinion doesn't sop me from having one, so, for what it is worth, here it is:

  • I think that the time of explosive market growth for WOW / Everquest style mmo's is pretty much over (in the developed world at any rate). Future subscription growth rate will be low or even negative.

  • I think that end of the growth phase means that existing games and new entrants must now cannibalise each other for a slice of what is effectively a fixed pie.

  • I think that the utter dominance of WOW in the mainstream mmo market makes it almost impossible for a new entrant to gain significant market share and even harder for them to hold on to that market share. Niche market mmos (EVE / ATID) may still thrive as long as they don't compete head to head with WOW and as long as they remain small enough to stay under the radar.

  • I think anyone who is currently developing a WOW / Everquest style mmo has already missed the boat and stands to lose their investment.

  • I think that the best bet for a new player trying to enter the market is to somehow try and change the rules of the (mmo business) game.

How can the rules of the game be changed?

  1. A Console based MMO - Consoles have firmly supplanted PCS as the platform of choice for gaming so its stands to reason that mmos on consoles will have a much bigger market than PC mmos, right? I am not so sure. It seems to me that the whole "play where you like play when you like" ethos of console gaming is completely at odds with the pee in a bucket level of commitment required for WOW/Everquest style mmos. DM Osbon is running a poll in which he asks which platform people see as being the future of mmos. Of coure the survey is is biased because you need to be on a PC to take it but PCs are whopping ass in the results.

  2. Casual / Browser based mmos. Maybe. I don't mean grind fest, pay money for in game items, browser based mmos. In terms of time commitment required these are anything but casual. The kids mmos like Club Penguin or Buildabearville come closer to the mark. Put one of those onto a console and you might be onto a winner.

  3. An mmo which makes less demands of its customers. WOW / Everquest style mmos demand huge amounts of time and significant amounts of money from their players. I think a new type of game which offered similar entertainment and escapism in a similar social environment at a lower personal cost could put WOW / Everquest style mmos out of business.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

MBP's instant book reviews get their own blog.

My instant book review sidebar was threatening to grow off the page so I have shifted the whole lot sideways to a new blog called http://mbpbooks.blogspot.com/.

There should be a feed in the sidebar which will take you there.

I like the idea of using multiple blogs to organise stuff. If this works out I may well spawn a new "instant game reviews" daughter blog.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Crysis Warhead and XIII, a tale of two shooters.

Played and finished Crysis Warhead last weekend and am currently playing XIII, a game I have had for years but never got around to playing.

Warhead is a pretty decent follow up to Crysis. The action runs concurrently with the first game and the two episodes mesh together pretty well. As has been noted by many commentators the graphics been optimised and the game is far less of a system hog than its precursor. While the game has much to recommend it I have to admit I found myself getting a little bored. I think that an unfortunate combination of factors combine to remove much of the challenge. You are equipped with an uber suit that unbalances the game. While some enemies are equipped with similar gear they all neglect to wear headgear leaving them vulnerable to a single headshot. Headshots are very easy to get because the suit offers invisibility mode giving you plenty of time to line up the crosshairs. Virtually every encounter in the game can be easily overcome using invisibility to pick off enemies one by one, hiding behind cover between hits to wait for your energy to recharge. Sadly the npc AI seems completely unable to deal with these tactics. The end result is that once you figure out the tactics the game is just too easy (and I played on hard setting). I guess Crysis had similar issues but I was less experienced in the use of the suit then.

After finishing Warhead I went to my shelf of unplayed games and came across Dargaud's 2003 game XIII. I am happy to report that the game's cell shaded graphics have not dated and the cartoon effect is still very appealing.The game has a strong story line, based as it is on a real comic book series. In complete contrast to Warhead I found the game to be b*stard hard. Even grunt level enemies could survive a full clip from my assault rifle but were able to kill me with a single burst.To make matters worse you cannot save apart from checkpoints which led led to my repeatedly trying the same levels over and over again. Not fun. Did I mention that for some bizarre reason the game doesn't automatically save the latest checkpoint when you quit? I lost several played levels before I realised that you need to manually save each checkpoint. Grrrrrr. Beautiful and all though the game is I was on the point of abandoning it when I discovered that somehow I had selected the hardest "XXX" difficulty level. I actually managed to struggle through about a third of the game on this setting. If I ever finish it it will be on "normal" difficulty though and let me re-affirm that I really don't like checkpoint save systems. Life is too short to play the same level over and over again.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Upgrading a Motherboard on Windows XP

Although my wife is not a gamer she is into video and photography both of which put strains on her desktop PC. The machine has a plethora of hardware hanging off it (scanners, video capture, additional hard disks etc) and has literally dozens of specialised pieces of software installed. It is amazing that the 2002 vintage machine was able to function as well as it did but for some time now I have had the guilty realisation that it is long overdue an upgrade.

With hardware prices at an all time low (in euro-zone anyway) the sensible course of action might have been to just replace the whole lot with a brand new machine. Quite apart from the cost however there was the unpleasant prospect of having to reinstall all that additional harware and software. Instead I opted for a motherboard upgrade.

Out of pocket cost was minimal - a remaindered socket 939 motherboard (€15) and 2GB DDR ram (€55). I already had a spare Power supply, 7600gt graphics and Athlon 64 processor, relics of a previous upgrades of my own gaming machine. Certainly not state of the art but a substantial upgrades none the less, sufficient to bring the machine up to 2006 performance levels.

While the cash costs were minimal the time investment was not. Overall the upgrade took me me about six hours broken down as follows:

1hour: Gathering all the stuff and downloading required drivers. Motherboard and graphics card drivers were easy enough to get from the manufacturers' websites. I copied them to the hard disk of the machine to be upgraded before starting just in case I had difficulties getting an internet connection up and running. It is also very important to ensure you have the original product key for windows XP before proceeding as the repair install asks for it.

1 hour: Slipstreaming a Windows XP Home SP3 disk. My original Windows XP home disk is the plain vanilla version prior to any service packs. I have previously had difficulties trying to repair a patched version of XP with the original disks so I decided to get the latest version first. Given that Windows has "phone home" copy protection you might think that Microsoft would be happy to distribute the disks free of charge but no. The only way legitimately get an upgraded install disk is to go through a complex process called "Slip Streaming" which effectively upgrades the install disk you already have. The process is completely counterintuitive so follow a guide if ever you want to do it. I followed Christopher Heng's guide from here and it worked.

1 hour: Installing the new hardware. I have done this many times by now but I still prefer the slow cautious approach to hardware installation. A mistake here can cause irreparable damage. I start with the bare minimum - processor, memory, motherboard, graphics card and keyboard and then add other bits once I am sure everything works.

1 hour: Doing a repair install of Windows XP with my newly made SP3 disk. Changing the motherboard upset XP and it refused to boot. The repair install fixes windows but does not delete any files folders or installed programs. There are a few pitfalls involved in doing a repair install. At the first menu it asks you to hit R in order to repair XP using the recovery console. Do not select this instead hit enter to proceed to Setup. At the second menu do hit R to commencce a reapair install. DO NOT HIT ESCAPE or it will begin a clean install wiping all your files and programs. The process is described here with pictures.

2 hours: Installing drivers for new hardware (motherboard, lan, graphics, sound) and generally checking everything out. I needed to re-activate XP but that worked fine once I had a working internet connection.

Bingo - one fully upgraded machine with all existing hardware and software working as expected. ( I did forget one small thing. Microsoft office took umbridge at the harware upgrade and complained when my wife tried to use it. It simply needed to be re-activated but for some reason the on line activation didn't work).

You might complain that I could have bought a brand new computer with six hours worth of professional earnings. I would still have had to re-install all of my wife's special hardware and software though (I am the in house computer maintenance guy). In any case It was an enjoyable outing for the hacker inside.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

An MMO based on Sacrifice???

In his blog today Tobold proposes an mmo where each player has a unique individual epic quest line. You could still group up and recruit friends to share your adventures but you wouldn't all be striving to kill the same ten rats over and over again. As Tobold says this "will allow grander stories, being more interesting to the player because they involve him much more." In other words we can finally have a proper "heroes journey" in an mmo. I think this is a great proposal.

Consider Tobold's proposal and read my recent comment about Sacrifice:There are five main paths to the end goal one offered by each of five Gods. Each God offers a sequence of nine missions leading to a common tenth "final mission". Each God has their own style and rewards the player with unique powers and creatures for taking their missions. The really clever bit is that you can mix and match missions for different Gods leading to a wide range of different paths through the game and resulting character builds. Some combinations are prohibited because a God you have fought against too often will refuse to offer you a new mission. The number of permutations is still large. Amazingly the game manages to tell a clever story which hangs together despite the random selection of paths to get to the end.

Putting the two together I think it might be possible to use a variant of Sacrifices multi-path system in a massively multiplayer format. The power of combinatorials gives a very wide range of unique quest paths from a finite number of quests. It would be particularly interesting to implement Sacrifice's skill model where the skills you end up with depend on the path you take through the game. Of course end game focussed players and min-maxers would soon figure out the paths which give the best build for healing or tanking or whatever but I imagine many other players would be happy to enjoy the journey.

PS. Yes I know mmos are history and I know it is pointless talking about them but this isn't an old style mmo its a proposal for a new style mmo so its all right to talk about, so there!