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.