Saturday, January 26, 2008

Enjoy the View or Race to the Finish?

In a recent comment Tipa posed the question
Do you want a game that's fun in its own right, or one where you just want to skip to the end to see how it turns out?
The question is asked about games but the conversation was about books as well.

In books I have a very high tolerance for padding - long monologues / tedious bits of poetry, dripping descriptions of landscapes or settings - I just skip them all to get to the meat of the story. I guess I just accept the padding as a marketing necessity in a world where people expect their fantasy novels to have 1000 pages despite the fact that most stories can be told very well in 200. I am fussy about writing style though. I make a very quick decision (within the first 20 pages or so) as to whether this writer has what it takes to keep me reading.

I love finishing games. I get a tremendous buzz from defeating that last boss and seeing the credits roll. I do expect to enjoy myself along the way though. I make a very quick decision about whether or not I will continue to play a game. Usually after one or two playing sessions. If the game manages to hold on to me for that long there is a good chance I will make it to the end. Just as in books I can skip through a lot of padding (I rarely read long quest descriptions for example) but I do like a bit of entertainment along the way.

Of course MMOs don't have an end and in a way that is a problem for me. I don't think I will ever buy into the "we keep playing to upgrade our gear so that we can keep playing" model. Guild wars held on to me longer than WOW and I think the drive to finish the storyline was one reason. Lotro has held on to me longer than either and I think the epic story line is a one big factor. Its not even that the epic story is all that great. Its a far cry from Tolkien and it certainly isn't a story you would read in book form. Yet it provides the thread which directs the game for me and keeps me playing.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Armageddon Reef: Fantasy and Science Fiction in one story.

Some fantasy novels pay homage to the science fiction link by alluding to a pre-historical technology age. For example Terry brooks Shanarra is set in a post apocalyptic Earth where advanced technology has been lost (except for a few surviving artifacts) and gnomes, trolls, elves and magic are the order of the day.

It is rarer to find science fiction novels referencing fantasy but David Weber's "Off Armageddon Reef " does just that. He sets the link up nicely. A space faring humanity is hounded to near destruction by genocidal aliens so they establish a hidden colony where all technology is banned in the hope that these last few survivors will remain undetected. Hundreds of years later a stable if stagnant medieval society has developed and anti-progress anti-technology principles are enshrined in the universal religion. The story is seen through the eyes of a lone android who's mission is to try and infiltrate this world and re-awaken mankind's inventiveness and thrust for progress while preparing them for the inevitable clash with the genocidal aliens.

Armageddon reef is written as science fiction. Even though many of the characters live in a world of myth and magic we the readers are left in no doubt as to the scientific basis of all that happens.

Exactly the same story could have been written as fantasy. Weber could have written from the point of view of a humble farmhand living in this world who gets caught up in great adventures. The android would be introduced as a wizard in possession of ancient arcane knowledge and his technologies as magical powers. From a purely narrative point of view that might even have been better - leaving the reader guessing as to what is really going on until the underlying secrets are revealed at the end. That type of story has been done before by Terry Brooks and others however so Weber's treatment is refreshingly new.

Why Fantasy AND Science fiction

According to Wikipedia Fantasy is:
a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. The genre is usually associated with the overall look, feel and themes of the European Early Middle Ages
While Science Fiction is:
a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology.
Chalk and Cheese right? So how come the same people read both? We are not talking about co-incidental liking here. The correlation is so strong that many bookstores have a single section called "Fantasy and Science Fiction". A quick Google search will confirm that fan-sites likewise combine the two apparently different themes.

I don't really know why the links are so strong but I guess it has to do with the fact that they both describe imaginary worlds. As good an explanation as any can be got from 42explore.com :
All science-fiction and fantasy writers face a common challenge. They try to present worlds that are radically and intriguingly different from today's world.
And yet ... If it is all about imagination and "what if..." why are successful fantasy novels so formulaic?

Of course it goes without saying that the same people who enjoy F&SF are also a pretty likely candidates to enjoy mmorpgs but that is an easier link to figure out. Mmorpgs allow players to directly participate in fantasy or science fiction worlds.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lotro Book 12 Release notes

Lotro Book 12 release notes are available here.

You have to love Turbine's regular content updates. I have a feeling that this will be the last free one but nevertheless with four free updates since launch I am satisfied that I got my money's worth.

In addition to a new chapter for the Eeic storyline this update has a tonne of stuff for everybody. Guardians, Burglars and Champions are in for some special loving (yea for Throg) but there really is something for everyone.

I am looking forward to some of the cosmetic additions - apparently we will now have a "cosmetic only inventory" just for show so we can alter our appearance without sacrificing the stats of our gear. I think that is great and can't wait to try it out. Haircuts are another new feature and there will be improvements to the housing system.

The Angmar quests are getting a revamp - which is no bad thing because they were a bit of a mess with complicated chains that weren't in a logical sequence.

Anther thing I find interesting is that questing from level 10 to 20 is being made easier with
  • Many Fellowship and Small Fellowship quests downgraded in difficulty to be Solo or Small Fellowship.
  • Several Instance and Escort quests reviewed and modified to be less difficult for solo players
  • Quest arcs smoothed out to have more logical level progression
I actually liked the fact that lotro required you to group from quite low levels but I can understand that now that the bulge of players has moved on the lower zones can be quite empty making it hard to get a group. These changes are probably for the best and if nothing else will make it easier to level up alts.

Lotro really is getting better and better all the time. It may not have added content quickly enough to hold on to many of the people who took a temporary break from World Warcraft but it is certainly good enough to keep my attention. I actually think that the game is ready to grow again and I would love to see more people trying it. Perhaps when Turbine release the next content patch they will spend some money on advertising and attract new players.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Online auctions: Ebay Madness

I have spent the last week trying to buy a second hand graphics card and it has not been an easy process. Pipped at the post three times. The fourth time I actually won the auction only to have the seller vanish into thin air when I suggested that we meet in person to exchange. Suspicious? I think so.

Having exhausted the possibilities of the local Irish second hand market - I headed off to Ebay to see what could be bought further afield. I am not an experienced Ebayer but I was aware of scams being perpetrated on Ebay not to mention the odd highly publicised sale of wine stains. I was perhaps less aware though of the madness that grips apparently sane people when bidding on Ebay. There are bargains to be had for sure but many second hand items sell for crazy prices - more than an equivalent new product , as buyers appear to get caught in a bidding frenzy.

Watching auctions for a few days I quickly realised that the current listed price of items is generally meaningless. For many sales the real price is determined by a period of frenetic bidding minutes before the auction closes. An item that languishes temptingly at £40 for several days will see its final price rise to £80 or more in the last few minutes.

Recognising my noobness I googled for some bidding advice and came across this excellent guide to Ebay bidding strategies by Tyler Jones. If you bid on Ebay it is worth reading. I won't re-iterate what Tyler says but I will second Tyler's opinion that sniping is the way to go. Sniping means bidding once and once only close to the very end of the auction for the maximum amount you are prepared to pay. This strategy beats lowball bidders hands down and protects you from getting caught up in a "nibbling" bidding frenzy.

Upgrading my graphics card.

My shiny new Samsung 22" monitor is indeed lovely but playing at the native resolution of 1680x1050 exposes the age of my 7600GT graphics card. Time to upgrade I think.

Shiny new DX10 graphics cards are getting cheaper. I could get a 256MB Radeon 3850 for around €150 (buying online and including shipping). I am concerned about the longevity of a card with only 256MB memory. 512MB cards cost at least €30 extra and that is more than I want to spend so soon after the extravagances of Christmas. Also I wouldn't get the benefit of DX10 until I upgrade to Vista and I intend to hold out on that until I do a major system upgrade in 2009.

This thinking leads me to the second hand market where it appears that I can pick up a very fast DX9 card from the 7900 family for around €100. Not future proof certainly but it will see me through until next years upgrade. As an added bonus it appears I can flog my 7600GT for around €50 making the entire upgrade considerably less painful to the wallet.

That was the thought process anyway that led me to buying a second hand 7900GTX on Ebay for £75 (about €100). Less stress on the wallet certainly but far far more stress on the sanity. Time for another post I think.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Call of Duty 4 Multiplayer

Hugging the wall I squeeze myself around the doorway poised to pump lead into any corner. Then I see him. For one brief moment we stare at each other across the debris strewn room.

No time to think.
Point.
Shoot.
Dive.

Bullets spray wildly about the room. Then silence.
Crouched behind cover I think.

He's behind that crate. I'm sure of it.
I wonder if I can shoot him through it.
It looks like metal, best not try.
A grenade! That should flush him.

The grenade lands with bizarre tinkling but it is deafening in the silence of that room.

Surely he must have heard that.
Footsteps - He's running.
Stand, aim, shoot.

A figure bursts from cover. Two taps of the trigger. Six bullets from my M16.

Dead . I killed him.

The grenade explodes behind a crate, now irrelevant. It's gentle thud makes suitable requiem for my lifeless opponent.

I'm still alive.



Thursday, January 10, 2008

Lotro: Throg raids the Rift of Nur Ghashu

Throg waited nervously for the first pull. First kinship Raid. Most important thing is not to embarrass himself. He was pretty sure he knew which mob to target but what if he had misunderstood the commands broadcast into the electronic ether by his raid leader?

A daze, a pull, wait for main tank to gain aggro and they are off.

Who am I supposed to be attacking again?

How the hell does this Raid assist menu work?

My screen is full of labels, I can't see a FRICKIN THING.

Who is that heavy breathing on the teamspeak channel?

Its crazy in here. Hit something. Hit ANYTHING.

DON'T HIT THE TROLL.

You hit the troll.

You hit the troll while you were standing on the edge of a cliff.

The troll nudges you off the cliff.

Dead.


An inauspicious start to Throg's raiding career but thing got better after that. We downed three bosses and loot was won. The more experienced raiders in the group noted that there were more wipes than usual but I don't think that was entirely Throg's fault.

Wife/family aggro was pretty good too. I booked the evening off and we started promptly and finished at 10:30. I missed my kids bedtime but they seemed to understand. Its OK for Daddy to take an evening off once in a while.

Oh and did I mention that Throg got some loot? A very nice pair of boots. These look like they should keep a dwarf's feet dry:

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Gaming Diary 8 January 2008

Apologies so for the rather rushed nature of this blog entry but for some reason the blogging urge has eluded me recently. Nevertheless I want to record my current gaming endeavours.

CoD4 Single Player: Finished. Absolutely terrific fps with strong storyline. The game is surprisingly short but has various bells and whistles that are supposed to encourage you to play through the game again. Play through the whole game again with one eye closed, that sort of thing. Personally I couldn't be bothered.

CoD4 multiplayer: Amazingly this is only my second ever on-line shooter. I like it. On the one hand its is more complex than Team Fortress 2 - with greater customisation of classes and more complex maps. On the other hand it is probably a lot easier for a noob to survive. The very complexity of the maps means that you can always hide in a corner somewhere and get the odd lucky kill. In TF2 there is nowhere to hide. The weapons are easier to use than TF2 weapons also. The RPG elements are nice - allowing you to unlock perks as you make progress but happily the default classes are powerful enough to allow you to make an impact from day 1. My favourite weapon is the M16. The three shot burst suits my play style. Amazingly I find I can shoot reasonably straight and I find that two quick taps (6 bullets) kills most things. I play as mbp - say hello if we ever meet in no-mans land.

Lotro: I've signed up for my first real raid on Thursday: The Rift. It has taken a bit of real life organisation to free up enough uninterrupted time but I am looking forward to it. Need to do some reading up and preparation to make sure Throg doesn't embarrass himself. The more serious members of my kinship are already raiding several times a week. I wonder if this will eventually put pressure on the casual friendly ethos of the kinship. I am quite optimistic that it won't, partly because the kin leadership is committed to maintaining the ethos but mainly because of the current design of lotro. As it stands at present you can still get very good gear without raiding so there isn't an unbridgeable gap between raiders and non-raiders.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Call of Duty 4

Ok I admit I bungled my way through the training mission of CoD4 but I was still a bit miffed when they suggested I was only good enough to play the game on recruit (easy) setting. I have been playing shooting games for 25 years for Pete's sake. Ignoring the games protests I selected regular mode and I can salve my damaged pride somewhat by reporting that the game is actually rather easy at this setting. You can take quite a few bullets before you go down allowing such unconventional tactics as deliberately running out of cover into open space to allow enemies to shoot you so you can spot where they are. I really should up the difficulty level again but I am having so much fun that I can't be bothered.

This is a terrifically enjoyable FPS. The graphics, the environment, the story line are done perfectly and the game play is fast and furious with plenty of enjoyable variety. You can't help but be impressed by the awesome destructive force of the modern weaponry at your disposal. The npc team mates seem to have got a lot smarter than previous CoD episodes so you do fee like part of a squad. I can't say I have noticed any stunning improvements in enemy AI however.

Like other modern shooters the game uses automatically regenerating health instead of health packs. I am still not 100% convinced that this is a good thing. I will agree it makes for a faster game but it also removes an element of strategy. It is not such a big deal that it spoils the game for me but I am disappointed to see that CoD4 still has a few of the infinitely respawning enemies that spoiled so much of CoD2. These are enemies that keep respawning until you reach a certain trigger point. Once you figure this out you realise that there is no point shooting them - instead just run from trigger point to trigger point. This feature completely undermines any attempt at stealthy shooting from cover and turns a shooting game into a silly running game.


Setting the game in a fictional modern conflict is an interesting development. It's great to be able to explore (and be impressed by) the full gamut of modern weaponry. So far I have played British and American special forces and the enemy have been mainly turban clad insurrectionists. The game takes a surprisingly neutral moral stance. The insurrectionists are ruthless and we see brutal street killings but there are also suggestions that they are freedom fighters overthrowing a corrupt regime. "Our" side on the other hand also perpetrates its fair share of brutality. In one cut scene an SAS squad tortures and then summarily executes an insurrectionist leader.

If the moral high ground is evenly shared between protagonists the balance of military technology most certainly is not. In previous CoD games the German weapons were often better than the allied equivalents but the modern weaponry of the US and UK troops are much much better than the kalishnikovs, Uzis and RPGs of the insurrectionists. You can still pick fallen weapons up to try out but it is just not worth it any more.

In one memorable sequence (Act 1 "Death from Above") you control the weaponry of a flying gunship providing support to a ground troop. Working in black and white (thermal vision?) you pour out flaming death and destruction on the ant-like humans below. It is a sobering demonstration of the casual destructive power of technology and if modern warfare really is anything like that I am scared.

Haven't worked up the guts to try out multiplayer yet - but I will.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Welcome to 2008

We were away for most of the Christmas period and the break was extended by the death of an elderly relative which necessitated a gruelling cross country drive to the funeral on New Years Eve. By the time we got home I would happily have collapsed into bed but my kids insisted on staying up to ring in the new year and I did my best to mark the occasion appropriately with a glass of the finest Irish Whiskey in hand.

I celebrated the arrival of 2008 by purchasing the collectors edition of Call of Duty 4 for €39.99 in my local game shop. I am somewhat pleased with myself because I resisted the temptation to buy the ordinary version for €50 three days before Christmas. Haven't installed it yet so opinions will have to wait.

Previously I resolved to try one of the unplayed games from my collection and I chose Supreme Commander. I got as far as the first level and I don't think I will continue. I have a strange relationship with RTS games. Several RTS games rank among my finest gaming experiences (Sacrifice, Earthsiege, Homeworld, Rome Total War, Battle For Middle Earth, Company of Heroes) but many other top rated RTS games have failed to hold my attention for more than a day or two. It is not about game play. I think the thing that makes the difference for me is "atmosphere". The games I like all have a terrific atmosphere which sucks me in. I still remember the day I successfully defended a nondescript bridge against overwhelming odds in Rome TW. I was on such a high after that battle. I felt like Horatius. Supreme Commander has gameplay in spades but from what I have seen so far it has little or no atmosphere. Perhaps I will give it another shot but I wouldn't guarantee it.

In other news my gaming experience has been much enhanced by the arrival of a lovely 22" wide screen. It really does make a difference. All I can say is that if you are still gaming on a small screen start saving for a bigger one . You won't regret it. Sadly my Christmas present screen has a small defect and needs to be returned. I will probably have to wait several weeks for a replacement. I will miss it.