Saturday, July 31, 2010

Accessing the Internet when holidaying in France

Best described as patchy.

Free wifi is available in some hotels and campsites plus in many restaurants. McDonald's deserves an honourable mention for almost always having free wifi.

There is still a surprising number of establishments charging a silly amount for an internet connection (€6 per hour / €20 per day being examples).

Connecting to the net via mobile phone data roaming is still outrageously expensive. This may be more to do with my home carrier than the French carrier but they wanted to charge me 1c per kb. No thanks. The EU has tried to clamp down on excessive mobile phone roaming charges but you can still clock up a €50 bill browsing a handful of web pages before your phone company has to notify you.

One very positive and yet frustrating thing was the widespread availability of mobile internet signals both Wifi and 3G in almost every urban area of France. I get the impression that just as in Ireland mobile access through the 3G network is becoming the internet mode of choice for many people. Unfortunately all of these seem to be locked behind long term contracts and it doesn't seem to be possible to sign up for shorter periods like a day or a week. Given the huge volume of tourists in a region like Paris I am surprised one of the mobile web companies doesn't offer a pay by the week package. Something like €10 per week for 3G or Wifi Hotspot usage would be reasonable.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Getting away from it all (Not)

Total amount of electrical equipment brought on holiday by family of two adults and two children:
1xLaptop + charger + external mouse
2x Digital cameras+spare batteries+chargers+memory cards and other assorted peripherals including tripod
2x Nintendo DSes plus chargers plus assorted peripherals + selection of game cartridges
2 x mobile phones plus chargers
2 x USB memory sticks
2 x MP3 Players plus headphones plus charging cables
2 x continental plug adapters

Estimated weight of electronics: 12kg
Total "free" luggage allowance on low cost air carrier: 10kg hand luggage per person.
Percentage of free luggage allowance consumed by electronics: 30%

Holidays

Just back from a very enjoyable two week family vacation in France. We managed to pack in Paris sightseeing, several Loire chateaux, much pool time, quite a bit of fine dining and even a few days in Disneyland. That didn't leave much room for gaming or blogging but a few thoughts did come to mind about the practicalities of being a gamer on the move and I will try to cover them over the next few posts.

By the way I struck it very lucky with my choice of holiday reading. Joe Abercrombie's "The Blade Itself" is a great fantasy read and Harold Sinclair's "The Horse Soldiers" turned out to be a terrific piece of historical fiction based on the US civil war. More details here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Men of War: First Impressions

I bought Men of War having read some reviews which compare it favourably to the Company of Heroes series.  I have only played the first two missions of the Russian campaign but so far these positive reviews seem quite justified.

Much of the gameplay in this squad based WWII real time strategy is very similar to Company of Heroes. You direct squads of infantry and vehicles in real time 3D battles with a wide variety of weapons, armour and terrain. There is no resource gathering and base building element.  In CoH you can replenish your forces at a base but in Men of War you must make do with the troops you start out with, any re-enforcements that the game chooses to give you and whatever you can scavenge from the battlefield. Scavenging is actually a major part of the game as it is the only way I have found to to replenish ammunition. Happily every soldier and vehicle has a surprisingly large inventory and just about any soldier seems to be able to carry and use just about any piece of discarded kit he finds including rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, helmets and flak jackets. They can also commandeer some but not all vehicles - enemy trucks appear to be fair game while enemy tanks are sadly not.

The difficulty level (playing on normal) seems a little higher than I remember from CoH but this could be my inexperience. The very first mission (not quite a tutorial more of a throwing you in the deep end) requires you to capture a couple of German holdouts and then stop a convoy armed only with a single tank and a handful of infantry. I had to replay the convoy section several times because even though my heavy tank was more than a match for any armour  the Germans had it was not able to effectively fend off waves of infantry who quickly dispatched the tank with anti tank grenades once they had killed my tiny infantry escort. Eventually I realised that I needed to take a much more aggressive role with the tank, blowing up troop carrying trucks before they could disembark the infantry. My small infantry squad meanwhile hid behind cover waiting to pick off any germans who threatened to get close to the tank.

The second mission is a much more spectacular affair with a massive German assault on a factory complex. You have to hold off the invaders for about half an hour while vital equipment is being loaded on a train for evacuation. You start with a large number of squads, too many to effectively micro-manage but happily the friendly AI seems very good and the pre-positioned defenders do a very good job of holding off the advancing tanks and men leaving you to focus on the hotspots. I was beginning to wonder if I might just leave the game to play itself but when the inevitable massive final push came my defences were overwhelmed one by one and I had to take control of the last stand myself. The number of troops in this battle and the sheer scale of the carnage outdoes anything I remember from Company of Heroes and certainly whets my appetite for things to come.

The graphics in the game are excellent, on a par with Company of Heroes but sound is a weakness. The translated voice acting varies from just about OK to dismal. Have played a number of poorly translated Russian games I would love to have an opportunity to try them in their original language with subtitles. I suspect the overall feel be better. The games ambient sounds are also a bit disappointing. Its is not that the sound effects are bad it is just that there isn't enough of them and the game seems unusually quiet. Unless there is a big fire-fight going on or unless a large convoy of tanks is moving you often hear nothing at all.

The control system is worth a mention because it is different. There isn't really a tutorial, the first mission is a baptism of fire and you much either figure things out by pressing buttons or go off and read the manual. I managed to figure out most of what I needed before consulting the manual because the screen interface is well labelled and fairly intuitive but instead of the industry standard left click to select right click to act Men of War uses left click to select and left click again to act. Right click is used to deselect a unit before moving on to another one. It is taking me a while to get used to this and I still make mistakes with it. Men of War also has an interesting system for automatically forming squads which I am of two minds about but you can turn it off if you don't like it.

Overall an impressive title. Certainly it has a few rough edges compared to the Relic's much better known Company of Heroes series but the added details in inventory management and the very impressive scenarios would seem to make up for that if you are prepared to put up with a bit of a learning curve.

Aside: This is the first game I have bought from Gamersgate. I love the fact that you don't need a client to run their games you just download it with a special downloader and then activate the copy via their site. They don't appear to impose any limit to the number of times you download which is nice. Whatever drm they use means that you cannot use generic patches but must wait for Gamersgate to produce a special version of each patch. I don't know how long this typically takes them but it could be a problem for multi-player games where you absolutely need the latest patch in order to connect to servers.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Overlord: Quick first impression.

One of my Steam bargains was the complete set of Overlord. Having recently tried to play Evil Genius and giving up from boredom after a couple of days trying I wasn't expecting too much from this game. Base building god games have never grabbed me no matter how humorous the subtext.   However the game has surprised me several times so far.

First surprise: Its not a base building god game at all really. It is more of a third person action game with minions. Yes there is a base to be built but that is really just a trophy cabinet for all the mission rewards you collect.

Second surprise is that despite the "Evil Overlord" theme there are actually moral choices to be made for example whether to rescue hostages or slaughter them. It's not quite good versus evil more evil versus not quite so evil.  I seem to have inadvertently set myself down the "evil" evil route by accidental slaughtering the inhabitants of my local town (a surprisingly easy mistake to make as the left mouse button is a universal minion command key and if you happen to be pointing in the wrong place when you click your minions will quickly murder anyone standing there). I am not far enough into the game to assess the full impact of these choices but I guess that evil actions give you more of some kind of dark powers while "not quite so evil" actions  get you better support from your subjects.

Third and biggest surprise of all is how pretty the game looks. The quality of the artwork in the game is absolutely fantastic. It is not all gloomy doomy art either. My first real enemy is a bunch of halflings (hobbits) and the hobbit village is beautifully drawn with exquisite detail easily on a par with Lotro's lovely hobbit abodes. I suppose I should feel guilty sending my minions in to smash up such an idyllic scene but the whole thing feels more whimsical than darkly evil. Even my evil tower is a bright and cheery place and my minions are works of art in themselves.

Although I am only a few hours in I can certainly recommend the game. The game play is novel and light heartedly humorous while the graphics are really beautiful. Don't expect much of a challenge from the early levels though. Those halflings are no match for my horde of minions even when they call on the support of an occasional troll. I couldn't find any difficulty slide but hopefully it gets a bit more challenging later. Even if it doesn't it is surprisingly fun though to send your minions on a trail of destructive havoc smashing everything in sight.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gaming Update

Thanks to the lingering after effects of Steam and other online sales I am vacillating back and forth between several games at present:

Left 4 Dead 2: All the goodness of Left 4 Dead 1 with a good deal extra on top. Considerably more challenging too in my opinion. I have completed three campaigns solo and have dabbled in a bit of online co-op on those campaigns. I don't like going multi player on campaigns until I have gone through them first in single player.

Bioshock 2 Multiplayer: With plasmid in one hand and machine gun in the other this is great fun. It has a level up mechanic like so many modern shooters but thankfully you only have to advance a couple of levels to get your hands on some decent weaponry. Servers are not terribly busy but I found it easy enough to get into a team deathmatch.

Overlord: Play as the Demon lord commanding an army of demons. I am only a couple of hours into this but it seems very imaginative and surprisingly pretty to look at.

Men of War: Just bought from Gamers gate where it is on sale for a few euros. I loved Company of Heroes and this has a similar feel but perhaps a little bit more complicated. Looking forward to it if I ever get time to finish the tutorial.

Chrome Specforce. It was only €0.99 in the Steam sale but it has not aged well . Brown depressing graphics and fairly standard shooter play. I did get a couple of hours entertainment out of it before moving on though.

The Birth of America:  This is the type of game I feel I really should be playing - slow cerebral strategy gaming with lots of embedded history. I actually think I would enjoy it but to be brutally honest I may never get around to spending the time to get up to speed. I did play through the short tutorial though.

 Plants versus Zombies. My wife is a Pop Cap fan-girl and I bought this for her in the steam sale and scored major brownie points. She absolutely loves it and has played it compulsively this week finishing the  main campaign. Slight concern - now that my wife has her own Steam account she will be able to look me up and see just how much time I really spend on games (60 hours playing Steam games in the last 2 weeks! - that surprised even me.)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

I hold the power of the moderators. Fear me!

I got a new allocation of Slashdot moderator points today. Moderator points are the popular tech news site's method of crowd sourcing quality control of their post comments. As a regular reader and occasional contributor in good standing I get randomly allocated five moderator points every few months. Each point allows me to mod a comment up or down using descriptive titles such as "insightful" or "flamebait". Slashdot readers can set a threshold below which they don't see comments (the default is +1 think) so the moderator system works pretty well to filter out spam for most readers. 

Today I not only get mod points but I was also asked to meta-moderate! This involves viewing a random selection of comments and voting them up or down and seems to be a way of keeping track on the quality of moderation. I wonder how many layers this system has. Is there a meta-meta moderation?

Anyway whenever I get mod points I do my best to pick out  comments on less popular posts or to late posted comments that are usually buried under hundred of earlier ones. I reckon early comments made to popular posts get seen by plenty of people anyway where as hidden gems that are buried further down could do with a bit of love.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Laptops now cheaper than desktops

My brother asked me to advise him on the purchase of a new home computer. I generally build my own desktop computers so I am not really up to speed on the market for ready made machines but I did a bit of searching for my brother and was a little surprised at what I found. I guess I knew that Laptops were now more popular but I was amazed at just how much laptops and netbooks have pushed desktop computers off the shelves of high street computer stores. Even more surprising is the fact that a general purpose laptop now costs less than a general purpose desktop of similar specifications. I guess the price of the LCD screen is now a major factor (laptops have smaller screens) and also the economies of scale have swung in favour of laptops as they have become more popular.

My brother is adamant he wants a desktop for the larger screen but it seems to me that the era of the desktop home PC is rapidly drawing to a close. The average consumer no longer wants a computer as a piece of furniture. They want laptops, netbooks, Ipads and even smart phones that they can take out when they want them and throw in a corner when they are not using them. Desktops themselves will not disappear of course because they are better for many business applications but the desktop in the home may become an expensive luxury confined to those with particular hobbies which demand the extra power and flexibility that a desktop provides.

Needless to say this trend has significant implications for the future of PC gaming, some good, some bad but that is a story for another day.

Stop Making Freaking Iphone Apps Please

Much as I admire Apple's business strategy I hate it. They capture an emerging market with superior product design and marketing and then lock customers in with proprietary restrictions. They did it to the digital music market and now they are doing it to the mobile internet. Except that the mobile internet is too big and too important to let one company control it.

Not a day goes by without me hearing yet another organisation proudly boasting that they have "developed an Iphone app" for their service. People and organisations who have no business favouring one companies view of the internet over another, including public bodies and charities are all jumping on the I-phone bandwagon.

This morning on the radio I head a surprisingly savvy journalist interview a representative of a public health body who was proudly touting their new Iphone app. "Not everyone has an Iphone" the journalist said "why didn't you develop an app that would work on other phones too?". Needless to say the representative didn't have an answer. Indeed perhaps there isn't an answer. Perhaps it just isn't possible because other phones are so varied and incompatible. Java would seem to be a good start because it is widely supported but then again Java doesn't work on Iphones. Grrrrr..

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Bioshock 2 Finished - and its a good one.

Just finished Bioshock 2 and really enjoyed my play through the game. My concerns about not being powerful enough were completely swept away as I progressed with more powerful plasmids and gene tonics. I opted for the "Drill Specialist" approach for the latter half of the game. This somewhat misleadingly named gene tonic doesn't actually make the drill more powerful at all but it does greatly reduce the EVE requirements of plasmids at the expense of disabling all weapons other than the drill. By combining powerful plasmids with an upgraded drill I was smashing through everything in the game by the end. All the plasmid powers can be useful and it is easy to see that you could select a wide variety of play styles. I used Swarm of Bees extensively with frosty blast to freeze harder enemies while I drilled them to bits.

The story lacks the literary pretensions of the first Bioshock but still hangs together well. There are some lovely touches including a sublime segment where you get to play as a little sister.

The game still features re-incarnation at vita stations which I don't like and never used. If you die during a fight you are re-incarnated at the nearest station while the mob has not recovered from the fight. I guess you can clear any enemy by repeatedly dying taking a small chunk of health on every death but I much prefer to quick save before a fight and keep trying till I get it in one go. Unfortunately Bioshock 2 has quick save and quick load buttons right beside each other which caused a couple of annoying mishaps. Nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable game. Recommended.