Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A funny thing happened on the way to the tiberium

Playing a bit of Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium wars last night I hit a tricky mission that caused me some problems. Even though the game gave me some strong units to start with I struggled to build up infrastructure while wave upon wave of attackers kept whittling down my forces. Unable to replenish losses I was doomed to death by attrition. I restarted in order to try and work out a winning strategy but was soon interrupted by a call to dinner. Leaving my hapless forces to fend for themselves I headed off to eat.

Returning a half an hour later I was much surprised to see that I had not yet been wiped out. All of my troops were gone except for one lone Mammoth tank but that tank was single-handedly fending off attacks from multiple directions all the while protecting my few remaining buildings.

I was initially perplexed. The Mammoth is a very powerful tank but how had it survived attacks from literally hundreds of opponents without any healing or support? When I investigated the answer turned out to be simple enough. The tank had achieved the highest level of veterancy (unsurprising given the number of kills it was notching up) and when a unit achieves that veternacy its health automatically regenerates between battles. As each wave of attackers appeared the tank took a pounding and lost health but it managed to regenerate enough between waves to keep going.

The continuing survival of that lone tank meant that I had in fact reached the tipping point of the game. With my enemies tied up in a futile struggle with that one immortal defender I was free to build up infrastructure and then to amass an unstoppable army.

All well and good except that I am left with the damning realisation that the computer playing by itself without my intervention had managed to survive when I could not. It is a sad day when a game lets you know that you are worse than useless!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Every Multiplayer game should have an "anonymous" mode

Sometimes I just want to play a game without making a social effort. When I am in this kind of mood I don't mind playing with other people it's just that I don't always have the energy to talk to them. Usually it is just tiredness but there can also be more pressing reasons like not wanting your wife / girlfriend /boss to know you are goofing off in a game when you are supposed to be working.

Unfortunately in today's gaming world with guilds and clans and friends lists from services like Steam and Xfire we are bombarded with connectivity. This is great when you are in the mood for it but it can be a pain in the neck if you are in a less sociable frame of mind.

Every time you log into a game even a single player game, your activities are trumpeted to to all of your on-line acquaintances. I suppose you could say something like: "Hi Mary I see that you are doing sink hole dungeon and I am also doing sinkhole dungeon but I am not up to chat right now so I want to stay on my own OK?" but that is the sort of thing you can only get away with with really close friends and even then you need to be careful.

For this reason I believe that every online game and every online gaming community should have an anonymous mode that allows you to log in and play without being announced to your friends. Steam apparently has such a function in that you can switch your friends list offline but some users are reporting that it doesn't always work: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=758423

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brothers in Arms: Thoughts after a Complete Series Playthrough

Thanks to a recent Steam sale I have been playing Gearbox's Brothers in Arms series of PC games:

Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30 (2005), Metacritic score 87.
Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood (2005), Metacritic score 84.
Brothers in Arms: Hells Highway (2008), Metacritic 78

Curiously my reactions to the games are in exactly the opposite order to their Metacritic scores. I was immensely frustrated by the first game and almost gave up on it. Road to Hill 30 was widely praised for its squad based gameplay but I found the system tedious. In most missions you are given a fire team and an assault team in order to implement classic find, fix, flank and finish  (4F) tactics but the suppression mechanic  which is a vital element of any squad based shooter is in my opinion broken. If you direct a squad to suppress an enemy unit they will fire at them until the unit is suppressed and then stop firing. The enemy squad will only stay suppressed for about 10 seconds before popping back to full awareness leaving you with a very narrow time window in which to manoeuvre yourself and your assault squad.   In addition the squads' fire-power, general survivability and path-finding  are so poor that they only suffice in the most straightforward of situations. If you are facing multiple enemies, or if the terrain is not obvious or if the  enemy has heavy weaponry then you are going to have to do the dirty work yourself. This is rendered an exercise in frustration however because the game enforces a ridiculous amount of aim jitter. The only solution really is endless patience waiting for jitter to subside between every shot. A final unforgivable element was the number of dreadful unskippable cut-scenes. Having finished the series I realise that these serve some value in telling the story but they sure as hell annoyed me when I was forced to sit through them.

I actually enjoyed the second game more despite the fact that it has almost identical mechanics and is even set in some of the same locations. I think this is because I had gotten used to game play and I no longer tried to follow the 4F routine blindly. I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to do most of the killing myself and use my squads mainly as targets to distract some enemy bullets.  

I wasn't expecting much of an improvement when I started Hells Highway but I was very surprised. First impression was how much more cinematic the whole thing was. Graphics, sound effects, acting and direction are all much much better. The story is a lot more complicated too. So complicated that I still don't know what it was about (something involving a cursed pistol and a guy with glasses) but somehow that doesn't matter. The game-play also got a complete revamp. Gone is the pretence that this is not a first person shooter and you can finally shoot straight. There is a cover system and auto regenerating health which makes you practically invincible so you can  try to take on the whole German army single handedly. You don't have to though because the squads are also vastly improved. They have more fire power often carrying heavy machine guns and bazookas. They have better path-finding and  joy of joys they can suppress enemies and keep them suppressed. All of this combines to make this episode a lot easier than its predecessors but I don't care. It is just much more fun to play. If you have any doubt over Gearbox's desire to make the game fun consider the fact that MG42 machine guns can now be picked up, carried around and fired from the hip.

Another not to be overlooked plus for Hells Highway is that it isn't set in Normandy. We finally get to see a town other than Carentan as we follow our soldiers exploits in Holland during the ultimately futile Operation Market Garden.

The game does have some flaws. The story as I have already mentioned is incomprehensible and the whole game does get repetitive towards the end. Indeed they could have left out a couple of the final chapters without losing anything. Nevertheless Hells Highway is a terrific game overall and highly recommended.

Did I mention that the game even has some spooky scenes in it reminiscent of FEAR. Bizarre I know in a WWII shooter but they kind of fit in to the overall story.




Monday, March 21, 2011

How can I overcome Apple Hate

My wife recently announced that she wants an Iphone and I experienced a very unpleasant knee-jerk reaction. This is despite the fact that at a logical level I agree that an  Iphone is probably the best smartphone choice for her. My anti Iphone / anti-Apple gut reaction was so strong that I actually woke up in the middle of the night worrying about it! I never realised that my subconscious was such a card carrying open software touting geek but there you have it.

Of course I don't dislike Apple products. I think they are masterpieces of design and innovation. Its just that Apple's closed system business model scares the daylights out of me. They have become the new "Evil Empire" a position that Microsoft held for a quarter of a century a position that in more recent times Google has made several half hearted plays for. Most depressingly Apple seem to be much much better at benign tyranny than Microsoft ever were.  In the Iphone versus Android wars I cheer for Android not because I want to replace Evil Overlord Apple by Evil Overlord Google but because the mobile internet is far far too important to let one company own it. My feelings on this issue are so strong that it is almost impossible for me to separate fact from emotion in order to make an informed judgement.

My wife on the other hand is not a techie geek and she will not appreciate the extra fiddling that an Android phone allows /  requires. She is the sort of person who will pay money for an app rather than figure out how to do the same thing for free by tinkering with alternative internet browsers. She wants a phone that "just works". She will love Apple's famously slick design. She will enjoy the social chic that an Iphone brings rather the geek chic that comes with an Android phone. There is a price penalty to be paid for owning Iphone (perhaps 50% more than a comparable Android phone) but this is a price my wife will probably be willing to pay.

What price my sleepless nights though?

Monday, March 14, 2011

We live in a Golden Age of PC Gaming.

In a terrific article recounting the dramatic changes he has experienced reporting on PC gaming bargains for Rock Paper Shotgun, Lewie Proctor delares:"we’re now in a golden age of PC gaming".

I agree with him.

Can you reccommend some interesting non gamer blogs?

Over the years I have revised and improved my daily reading list list both in terms of the content and the technology I use to read it. I am currently using Netvibes as my reader of choice because I find it presents the maximum content in the minimum of space. This allows me to skim over a hundred or more headlines very quickly to select which ones warrant further analysis. In fact this process is so efficient that I am ready to expand the list of feeds I subscribe to.

Looking over my current reading list however I cannot help noticing that it is heavily biased in favour of gaming blogs and mmorpg gaming blogs at that. I feel the need to expand my horizons a bit so I am on the hunt for some interesting non gaming blogs that will hold my attention. It is hard to tie down exactly what I am looking for because I deliberately want to broaden my horizons. I will consider anything well written and informative that updates fairly regularly. I love the intimacy of bogging so blogs are preferred to professional news sites but I amn't ruling anything out. 

First example of something I stumbled upon by accident: I, Cringely the blog of Robert Cringely the author of  "Accidental Empires" and presenter of the equally good 1996 PBS series based on the book. Cringely has won a place on my reading list for his informative articles on what is probably happening in Japan's earthquake troubled nuclear plants as well as this terrific rant piece where he rails against a piece of pseudo journalism that purportedly highlights where American's waste money but as Cringely points out is actually saying that "eating, having family and friends, enjoying music, having a dog or cat, experiencing the world, knocking back a dirty martini, exercising, and replacing our worn-out clothing is a frigging waste of money."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mirrors Edge Finished

Loved: Running across rooftops.
Disliked: Too many indoor jumping puzzles. Combat generally uninspired.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Please Explain Pizza Delivery Economics

Can anyone explain the economics of Pizza delivery to me please. Every single company seems to use the same method of setting ridiculously high list prices for their pizzas and then  flooding the neighbourhood with discount vouchers (or in more recent times giving generous discounts for internet orders). The net effect of the discounts is to bring the price back to a reasonable level.

Today we had a kids birthday party and I ordered a bunch of pizzas for delivery.  Unfortunately it turned out that we had discount vouchers for every pizza parlour except for the one I wanted to order from. These guys are just down the road from us and I trusted them to deliver on time. Timing is everything at a kids birthday party so I rang them anyway. The guy asked me if I had any vouchers and I said no so he proceeded to quote me the full outrageous menu price (€65 if I recall). I protested that he could surely do better than that and he hummed and hawed a bit. Eventually I shamed him into going off to speak to someone (a manager I guess). He came back and told me in hushed tones that he would slip a menu to the delivery man and if I tore off the voucher at the back of that menu and gave it to the delivery me he would only charge me €45. 

I was pleased with myself for having gotten some discount  and it was only later I realised that they always give you a fresh menu with every delivery so any customer could do exactly the same. Why would any one ever pay full price? Bizarre.





Friday, March 11, 2011

Back to the Fox Perhaps?

Previously a long time Firefox user I switched to Opera almost exactly one year ago. At the time I felt that Firefox looked and felt old fashioned and I was immediately attracted by the sleek modern look of Opera. After getting sick and tired of managing Firefox add ons I was further seduced by the fact that Opera has so many useful features as standard, features such as  speed dial and tiled tabs. It was only after I started using the browser though that I realised the real killer feature of Opera is its unrivalled cross platform support. At the time Opera was quite simply the best mobile phone browser you could get with features like tabbed browsing, server side compression and really good page reformatting. On top of all that Opera link allowed me to synchronise the browsers on all of the computers I use (currently three desktops, one laptop and one phone) automatically porting bookmarks and speed dial settings between them. I have become so used to this interconnected way of life that that this one feature has become the single most important thing that I now want in a browser. I cannot contemplate going back to a world where I use different unlinked browsers on different devices.

There are disadvantages to Opera unfortunately. The spectre of web page incompatibility always remains. It is rare but it does happen and often in the most annoying way. Most commonly it is interactive pages and forms which give problems. I have lost information typed into web forms because the form turned out not to be fully compatible with Opera. A number of important services that I need to use for my work are not fully compatible with Opera either. Opera mobile on my new Android Smart phone was also a bit disappointing. It isn't bad it just isn't really a step forward from the Opera mini I was using on my Symbian phone a year ago. Tabbed browsing for example is awkward, slow and prone to hanging.

Enter Firefox 4 (currently at "release candidate" stage). It has a much sleeker cleaner look than the one I had become so tired of with Firefox 3. Crucially it now has the ability to synchronise Firefox settings across computers! It doesn't have a speed dial feature  but it has an App Tab feature that allows you to store commonly used web pages in permanent app tabs and I think I can use that as an alternative. Firefox browser for Android is also coming along nicely. It has a far better implementation of tabbed browsing than Opera mobile. Opening a link to a new tab in Firefox  does not switch focus and does not hang the phone while the new page is being loaded, two peculiarities of Opera mobile that render tabbed browsing far less useful than it should be.  Firefox Android is not perfect however. Page rendering is inexplicably slow - to the point where you can see it drawing as you scroll across the page. Page reformatting for the small screen is also a lot poorer than Opera from what I have seen so far. Hopefully the open source nature of Firefox will allow these issue to be addressed quickly. The big selling point of Firefox of course is the terrific web page compatibility that you get from using one of the most popular browsers on the planet.

In the past I had a love hate relationship with  Firefox extensions. I loved the way you could get the browser to do anything you want but I hated the fact that every time I started the browser there was some extension or other demanding to be updated. Keeping extensions in sync between different computers is also a pain. This time around I want to avoid extensions as much as possible.


Will I return to the Fox? That remains to be seen. I am certainly going to try it out for a while. If it gives me the interconnected web browsing experience that I enjoyed with Opera but with fewer compatibility hiccups then I may well switch back permanently. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A message for my wife

It isn't what it looks like. I promise there is nothing going on between me and Catherine Meyers!

A message for Catherine Meyers

Bloggers comment system has recently started eating some of the comments left on my blog. I did see your comment before it disappeared . If your request is genuine then I may be interested but I would like to see your website first please. You can email me at mindbendingpuzzles(at)gmail.com  to prevent your reply getting eaten by Blogger. 

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Now that's what I call a fair usage policy

Irish mobile phone operator E-Mobile has just announced a new unlimited calls and text package for around  €50 per month. The advent of smart phones is making voice and text packages less and less relevant but I was amused to see that the inevitable fair usage policy for this plan is 10,000 texts and 45,000 minutes of calls per month.

Now 10,000 texts per month is a lot but achievable by very heavy users but I am perplexed to know how anybody could exceed 45,000 minutes of calls given that 31 days x 24 hours x 60 minutes is only 44,640 minutes. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Mirrors Edge - Why Walk when you can Fly?

When I was younger I used to have dreams where I ran and ran without my feet touching the ground. I am sure that the amateur psychiatrists will have fun with that but Mirror's Edge reminds me powerfully of those dreams.

The game is at its absolutely breathtaking best when you guide the sylph-like free-runner Faith in a madcap dash across rooftops leaping from ledge to ledge while narrowly avoiding flying bullets from the guns of your less nimble pursuers. The sense of speed and movement is magnificent and imparts a feeling of invincibility, at least until you miss a jump and end up plunging to your death hundreds of metres below.

The suspense is slightly marred by the realisation that the pursuers such weaklings that you can often turn around run up to them,  disarm them and use their weapon to murder their comrades with little more than a  few scratches to show for it. The fact that your unarmed elfin heroine can disarm an assault rifle wielding body armour clad SWAT officer strains credibility and feels like cheating. I try to avoid the tactic whenever possible but I must hang my head and admit to having resorted to it on a few occasions when my middle aged reactions proved incapable of leaping my way to freedom while under fire. I play on the default difficulty setting so it is possible that pursuers become more dangerous at higher settings but then I would have to put up with the frustration of not being able to get through certain sections of the game so it is a balance choice I
grudgingly put up with.

I actually put off playing Mirror's Edge for some time because I generally suck at running jumping games but I am pleased to report that this aspect of the game has proven perfectly balanced for me at least on normal difficulty. The mouse and keyboard controls work very well and I have even developed something of a fluidity as I glide across the rooftops. There are a few "difficult" jumps that look impossible at first glance but nothing that delayed me for more than about 10 minutes as I refined my timing or tried alternative approaches.

I am currently about two thirds of the way through the  game and I am playing it in small enough chunks so as not to get bored with the potentially repetitive game play.

Recommended.


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Your Prejudice versus my Preconceived Opinion

It is a habit of mine to occasionally browse the websites of organisations and publications whose views are entirely contrary to my own. I find it both educational and entertaining to be confronted with passionate advocacy of opinions that run completely contrary to what I and my circle of friends and acquaintances accept as obvious truth.

Thus it was that yesterday I spend some time on the website of a radically conservative US publication where all of the topics seemed to be selected form a very limited and predictable list. Among the condemnations of Barrack Obama, liberals, homosexuals and Muslims I was surprised to see an active thread in the forums denouncing Wikipedia. I hadn't realised that Wikipedia was such an inflammatory topic among right wing conservatives but a common theme among the contributions is a conspiracy theory that Wikipedia is dominated by liberals who shamelessly abuse their administrator power promote a liberal agenda while deleting "facts" posted by right thinking conservatives. There are demands that they shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. With my liberal tainted goggles I have to admit that I wasn't entirely swayed by the vitriolic condemnation. Most of the "facts" that were deleted seem to me to be either unsupported opinion or original research neither of which are allowed on Wikipedia.

Satisfied that I had found the flaws in the conservatives' arguments I returned to the comfort zone of my own regular reading list to be confronted by yet another condemnation of Wikipedia. This time it was gaming website "Rock Paper Shotgun" (a publication not noted for its  love of fundamentalist conservatism) who were complaining. The subject of RPS's complaint was the decision recently taken to delete the Wikipedia page of the once influential gaming website  "Old Man  Murray".  Vitriolic condemnation of Wikipedia and its practises abound.  There is even a conspiracy theory that the instigator of the deletion has a grudge against the creator of Old Man Murray and is shamelessly abusing his administrative power to promote his own agenda. Coming the very day that Steve Jobs proclaimed that the "PC Era is dead" this news of self serving Wikipedia admins choosing to wipe an important piece of PC gaming history from the record served to infuriate and upset long time adherents of the hobby like myself. My blood boils. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with this.

Eh... hold on a minute.

Fresh from smirking at the ranting of fundamentalist conservatives I now find myself falling oh so easily ino a fit of  ranting of my own. Calming myself down I went off to see why the page had been deleted. There was a process of nomination followed by  a period of argument and counter argument before a final judgement was made. The issue of whether or not the proposer had a grudge against the site is irrelevant "Old Man Murray" fell down when measured against Wikipedia's notability criterion wherein an topic requires significant coverage from reliable independent sources in order to warrant coverage in Wikipedia.  Now there are lots of folk (including myself) who think that notability criteria is not relevant to what Wikipedia has become and should be changed but them's the rules of Wikipedia at present. Old Man Murray did get due process. Ranting about admins and constructing conspiracy theories is not going to get it re-included. If you really want to get it re-included either find evidence of "significant coverage from reliable independent sources" or perhaps convince people to write about it in the New York Times and other sources deemed reliable.

Is there a lesson to be learned from all this? Probably but I am not sure if I can distil it into a short paragraph. Something about the fact that every one of us is blinkered by preconceived opinions and it is much easier to point out prejudices in those who oppose your viewpoint than it is to see your own. Nevertheless I do think it is helpful to immerse yourself every so often in the mindset of "the other side" if only to get a better understanding of the reasons for your own beliefs.






Second time around I turn into Leeroy Jenkins

In complete contrast to the sedate pace of train simulation the other game I have been playing this week is the frenetic shooter painkiller. I played the expansion "Battle out of Hell" for the first time and I replayed several levels of the original. The fast paced moving and shooting remains as entertaining as ever but I was particularly struck by how differently I approach the expansion (which I had never played) to the original game which I had previously played extensively.


Playing new levels for the first time I am extremely cautious. I favour long range weapons that kill mobs before they can retaliate. If possible I try to use the terrain to protect me from damage and to trap mobs into kiling zones. I am miserly with ammunition and health even to the point of re-loading a save gamed should I fall too low on either.

Second time around I abandon caution entirely and go all Chuck Norris. I run around blasting everything in sight with a shotgun and/or melee weapons with little heed to personal safety or conserving ammunition.

I suppose it is only human nature to be cautious in unfamilar territory but the difference in my own behaviour is really quite dramatic. The strange thing is that in Painkiller and in many other games of my experience the reckless approach works just as effectively as the more slow cautious one and also happens to be a good deal quicker. 

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Adventures in Train Simulation

Trains are made of pure sound. That is the most important lesson that I learned from a weekend spent messing about with train simulation. I also learned about competing software and passionate communities and about routes, engines, rolling stock, controls and signals but my overwhelming memory is the sound of the railway.

Although Railworks 2 appears to be the leading light in train simulation these days there are an number of other programmes that have their own following including Trainz, BVE and the venerable Microsoft Train Simulator. For my first taste of the hobby I tried the free open source package open BVE. This is a somewhat unusual choice of starting point because openBVE is an open source re-write and extension of the already free BVE train driving simulation. Documentation and hand holding are sparse to non existent and the main creator of open BVE pulls no punches when he announces that:
"Compared to other simulators of the genre, especially compared to commercial games, openBVE has its main focus on realism, not necessarily on user-friendliness."

I however have a softspot for open source software and I am not afraid of a challenge. Even more importantly I stumbled across a fan made Irish railway line for openBVE. That convinced me so I downloaded the programme with the intention of running my own simulation of the somewhat fictional BallyFeckin to Waterville (BWR)  railway.

Things did not immediately go smoothly but then again nothing of real value ever does.  Downloading openBVE itself and its associated libraries gives you a working shell of a program that contains precisely no trains and no train routes so ther eis no comfort factor of at least being able to get the default scenario going. The rather short  FAQ on the openBVE forums suggests that I need to download a scenario and manually copy its contents into the appropriate folders. Graymac the creator of the BWR scenario helpfully provides separate zip files for each folder so that seemed easy enough. GRaymac even provides a train depot where you can grab a selection of Irish trains to run on his routes.

After the incongruity of having to manually create the data file structure I was surprised to find that the launch menu of openBVE is polished and quite intuitive. You choose a route and train then select a difficulty level (arcade, normal, expert) and away you go. Controls, graphics settings and other options are configurable via fairly obvious buttons.


My first attempt at running the scenario generated a multitude of error messages which was initially intimidating but when I looked the error handling system turned out to be extremely precise telling me line by line exactly where the errors occurred and what was wrong, God bless open source software. In every case the model was failing to load a dependency file. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck into the model files to try and get to the bottom of the problems.

The file structure of openBVE seems quite straightforward employing comma seperated variable files (csv) for most data structures and standard formats (bmp, png) for graphics. Of course there is an awful lot of data in a scenario such as this and I developed a new appreciation for the enormous effort Graymac must have put into creating this labour of love. The helpful error messages quickly led me to the very lines of the data files that were causing the problem and in most cases the culprit was a file address that used the unix convention of  \.. to point to the parent directory of the current directory. For some reason this was not being interpreted correctly on my Windows 7 64 bit system.

I briefly toyed with the idea of manually correcting the addresses in all of the hundreds of csv files  but thankfully I found a kludge that got me up and running again quickly. By finding the directory that Windows 7 thinks the address points to and simply copying all of the folders again into that directory everything worked at the expense of a bit of duplication of files.

There were a couple of other minor glitches (on inexplicably missing graphics file for a raindrop and a British signals  library that Graymac alludes to in a tiny footnote that I hadn't  seen earlier). These were quickly resolved and I was soon a train driver.

In the world of hard core train simulation instructions are for sissies and trains turn out to be remarkably resistant to moving even in arcade mode. Thankfully a bit of random button pressing put me into free look mode (right mouse button) and over on the right hand side of the screen are a set of instructions including a helpful quick start guide! I never did figure out how to get rid of that intrusive BWR logo in the top right hand corner but here is a quick video of me actually driving a train (recklessly) :