Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bye Bye Lotro Europe

Codemasters European Lotro is now closed and we players will be up and running on US severs in a few days. I logged in last night to see if there was anything happening in game but apart from a splash screen saying goodbye from Codemasters there was nothing special going on.

Can Activision Turn an FPS into a Subscription Game?

Interesting news on the wires that Activision want to introduce a monthly subscription service called "Call of Duty Elite" to their hugely successful first person shooter franchise. Apparently the subscription will be optional which begs the question as to what elite players will get that non payers don't. So far I haven't seen any mention of game-play advantages, the focus seems to be on added value features like social networking and statistics. Will that be enough to entice players to open their wallets I wonder?

With millions of players online playing Call of Duty games on a daily basis I can see the $ signs in Activision's eyes at the idea of getting recurring subscription fees but I can't help feeling they are ignoring the trend. In the mmorpg world where subscriptions were once commonplace most games are moving towards a free to play with cash shop model. Of course the most successful mmorpg "World of Warcraft" is still raking in the subscriptions and significantly is also owned by Activision.

Adding subs to a game genre where customers never had to pay before does seem like a much riskier model to me however. Call of Duty is probably the only game that is big enough to have any hope of pulling it but my gut feeling is that they would have been far better to go with a cash shop model such as the one Valve has added to Team Fortress 2.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Clive Barkers Undying on Windows 7 64 bit

Clive Barkers Undying is a forgotten Classic game from ten years ago. It is a first person adventure with a clever combination of weapons and magic. It features a creepy and imaginative storyline from Clive himself and really deserved to sell a lot better than it did.

The good news is that it works very well on Windows 7 64 bit without any patches.I used Windows XP sp2 compatibility mode following a recommendation from the internet but I later discovered that the game runs well enough without this. Note however that save games seem to be stored differently depending on whether or not you use compatibility mode so choose a mode and stick with it.

The biggest annoyance was a very long starting time (3 minutes on my system) but once the game was up and running everything went smoothly. I had a few crashes during game-play which is not too surprising given that this was version 1.0 unpatched.  I strongly recommend using multiple save slots though and not solely just relying on quicksave because if the game crashes while you are saving you could lose a lot of progress. 

This is a ten year old game though and the graphics are obviously primitive by modern standards even though the artwork is very atmospheric and imaginative. The game is longer than a modern shooter with a lot of different locations and enemies. Combat is also very different than a modern shooter. Enemy AI is non existent and so is cover. Enemies run at you and try to kill you so in order to stay alive you either need to shoot them first or more probably keep moving. I died several times to the very first enemies in the game while I shook off my 2011 shooter habits and re-learned to circle strafe.


Highly recommended if you can get your hands on a copy. It is a great pity Good Old Games haven't managed to include it in their catalogue.

EDIT: I somehow forgot to mention  that the game is set in Ireland in the 1920's and has the worst attempts at Irish accents I have ever heard. Suffice to say that I found the game sufficiently engrossing that I forgot all about the comedy accents.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Got No Friends? Nevermind Here's SomeYou Can Have

Lets just say a "friend" of mine has so far managed to resist the lure of Facebook. Unfortunately this "friend" soon found that an increasing amount of useful stuff is accessible only to Facebookers so he (or she) created a bogus account in a fake name just to get access when needed to various Facebooky things. (A gross violation of the Terms of Service, I know, shame on them. I am not sure if this is an imprison-able offence yet but doubtless it soon will be). 

Anyhow given that the entire account is a fake you should not be surprised to hear that this "friend" never bothered to connect to any other friends via this fake account. Indeed this reasonably tech savvy individual even managed to negotiate their way through Facebook's less than transparent privacy options to turn off all of the normal intrusions that Facebook makes.

So far so good but the "friend was most surprised when Facebook started sending him (or her) emails noting with obvious sympathy that he (or she) has no friends.The helpful service offered to find friends for the fake persona and even made several named suggestions to kick the process off.

I am happy to say that, to date, this "friend" has declined Facebook's invitation to broaden his (or her) imaginary persona's circle of acquaintances. Nevertheless the notion of constructing a fully fleshed out virtual alter ego complete with a computer generated social network is tempting.



Friday, May 20, 2011

Playing Singularity

Enjoying it so far.

That's all.

PS. Suffers from same issue as last game I played in that it only has one save slot? When did this become a trend? Last I heard even the lowest spec gaming console has enough storage space to allow a few save game slots. Not having multiple slots really restricts your freedom to play around.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Too TiredTo Shoot

Last night I wanted to play Medal of Honor Airborne but I couldn't because I was too tired.

The really strange thing is that I didn't realise I was so tired until I actually tried to play. I had a long day at work and it was after 9pm when I finally got to sit down in front of a PC. That's isn't too unusual however and I was very much looking forward to playing the shooter in order to relax before bed. Once in the game I found I couldn't hit a barn door and just got murdered over and over again. At first I was perplexed because I had made good progress previously but thinking about it I realised that I was just tired and my reactions were like molasses.

The unforgiving nature of the game didn't help because I was playing on hard and there is no way to switch the difficulty level without losing your save game.  The terrible checkpoints meant that I couldn't make any progress whatsoever in my tired state. (Did I mention that Medal of Honor Airborne has a really terrible save system?).

I was disappointed at not being able to get my shooter fix but I was also surprised at  how badly my performance had been affected when I never realised how tired I was.  I am really quite bad at reading the signals from my own body. I just expect it to do what ever I ask it to do and usually it just does it. Not last night however. I hope this isn't a symptom of old age.

At least I was playing a single player game and my lack of performance didn't affect anyone but myself. I would have been rightly embarrassed in a multi-player setting like a raid.










Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Loyal Customers Get Screwed

My motor insurance is up for renewal and my current insurer has just sent me a helpful form I can sign and send in to renew my existing policy.

STOP!!!

It is many years since I realised that just ticking the box is a sure way to guarantee you are paying too much for car  insurance. It always pays to shop around. Even when I want to stay with my existing insurer it is always worth getting a couple of competing quotes. On several occasions I have found that having a cheaper quote from a rival company in my hand will cause the first insurer to re-quote at an even  lower level.

You might think such games are irrelevant in these days of online quotations and automated pricing models but my experience says not. Automated systems will give you a fixed quote but if you can get talking to a human sales rep they always have some leeway to lower their price.

I discussed this situation with a friend of mine who works in sales in a different industry and he made a guilty confession. It is the same in every industry, loyal customers get screwed because they generally pay whatever is asked while while the fickle customer who is hard to sell to and who takes up so much of the salesman's time preparing quotes that are never taken up gets a much better deal.

It makes sense I suppose but it hardly seems fair.




Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Medal of Honor: Airborne

With the colossus that was Call of Duty 4 just around the corner this WWII shooter never really stood a chance of making much of an impact when it was released in 2007 but I was pleasantly surprised after picking the game up in a recent Steam sale to find that there is a very good shooter in there none the less.

The single player campaign is short with only six maps spread across Italy, France and Holland. Nevertheless the shooting action is first class with good enemy AI and plenty of nooks and crannies for enemies to hide in. These combine to make the game quite challenging so I expect most players will be able to squeeze at least a dozen hours of entertainment out of the game.

Innovative points:
-The game is somewhat non-linear because each map has a series of objectives that you can tackle in any order.
-At the start of each level and after every death you parachute in (you are airborne remember) so you can choose where you want to go next.
-Every weapon in the game has three levels of upgrades which you unlock by gaining kills with that weapon. The upgrades include things like increased accuracy or a larger clip and become very useful for the tougher encounters later in the game.


Bad points:
-The checkpoint save system is really painful. You only save when you achieve an objective. The non linear nature of the game and the general difficulty level means that you can easily lose half an hour of game play if you die when attempting certain objectives.
- Unskippable cut scenes at the start of every level. Given the overall difficulty level you will die  a lot so you will get to see these cut scenes over and over again.
- Inexplicable achievement system. The game awards stars for how well you do in every mission but nowhere in the game or in the manual does it tell you how to win or lose stars. It is probably something to do with kills and deaths but the question has led to several forum debates and one theory holds that the only way to get five stars in some missions is to deliberately die at a certain point.
- Multiplayer is predictably very quiet. I did spot about a dozen servers online with a handful of players on them but  you probably need to bring your own friends if you want to get much out of this in multiplayer.

Things that might annoy some folk but don't really bother me:
- There is no real storyline, the maps feel like recycled multiplayer maps. Nevertheless this suits the non linear nature of the game play and the complex nature of the terrain coupled with pretty good enemy AI means that you can still enjoy a challenging single player game.
- Historical accuracy be damned. Did you know that an MP40 could be upgraded with a 64 bullet clip, or that Hitler bred a race of gas mask wearing super soldiers who fire MG42's from the hip?

- Just about every plane you travel in gets shot down. This gets predictably tedious after a while and I can only assume this was some kind of running joke for the developers.
- Its yet another WWII game played from the US perspective, yawn. At least the game doesn't mention Carentan.




Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tragedy

A child has died.

We attended a first communion celebration a small country churchyard yesterday. In that rural setting the bonds of faith and community are strong and relatives and neighbours of the eight year old classmates turned up to share in their special day. The young boys, of whom my wife's nephew was one, shuffled uncomfortably in formal suits. The girls on the other hand were radiant in beautiful white dresses, each one an angel. Most would not put so much thought into an outfit again until the day of their wedding.

After the ceremony families retired to homes and restaurants to celebrate. These are difficult times in Ireland. There is no money for extravagance these days but the simple rituals of community, tradition and family have never been more important. While adults shared food and pleasant conversation the children (hopefully changed out of their fine clothes) enjoyed more boistrous pursuits.

One beautiful eight year old girl's family had erected a bouncy castle for her and her friends to play upon. The children climbed and bounced and laughed. Unfortunately  the tethers were not fully secure and a gust of wind caught the structure and flipped it over. Most rolled and tumbled and got up again but this beautiful angel was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was thrown head first onto a hard pavement. Her father saw her fall but could not stop it. An amubulance was called and she was brought to hospital but did not survive. 

In a small tight knit community there are channels of information that are older and more dependable  than the internet. Word passed from telephone to telephone, from door to door and from mouth to mouth. Families who were settling down to relax after the conclusion of their own festivities were struck with disbelieving horror.

We attended mass this morning in the same country churchyard. It sits on a hill overlooking a beautiful Atlantic ocean bay. It is the kind of rugged beauty that speaks to your soul and forces even the hardened atheist to wonder if there just might be a benevolent creator after all.  The church was decorated with flowers and tapestries from the day before. The altar still bore bore a large picture of the thirteen first communicants. 

My wife grew up in this rural parish but I am a city born blow in. Nevertheless I could not help be moved by this tragedy and by the grieving of these good good people. There were tears in many eyes. The priest who had officiated at this girl's first communion yesterday and who would soon have to officiate at  her funeral could offer only the consolation of prayer.

As a parent I am lucky never to have experienced the loss of a child but I cannot imagine a worse nightmare. The very thought of it fills me with unspeakable horror. Yet this is part of life. This is not the first child to be buried in this church and it will not be the last. Some of the mourners will be able to find solace in a strong faith which teaches that there is life after death. Perhaps others will take the brutal randomness of this tragedy as evidence that there can not be any overarching benevolence. Events such as this defy easy classification.

I will be holding my own children closer tonight.  

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Great Article about Ebooks

Hot off the presses from Paid Content: http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-book-business-twists-in-to-new-shapes-to-face-its-first-digital-challen/

Selected Quotes:

The entire publishing industry is going down the drain,”   

"In the current e-book Top 50 on Kindle, there are only five titles priced at £5 or above. "


We’re facing stiff competition from individual self-publishers and potentially giant technology companies with deep pockets,”

Massively Single Player Games

After thoroughly enjoying the Freelancer I am thinking of having another go at one of the "X" games. Back in the day I spent several weeks thoroughly engrossed in X2: The Threat while I still have an unopened copy of X3: Reunion sitting on my shelf.

Freelancer's main campaign is really good, a tightly scripted roller coaster ride of adventure in space. Once you have finished the game the limitations of the static universe quickly become apparent however and it begins to feel repetitive. My understanding of the X games is the very opposite. While the campaigns are not all that great the games give you a truly open world with a vast range of possibilities to explore. Indeed this is both a blessing and a curse.
 
I gave up on X2 back in 2003 after spending several weeks in the game.The thing is I am not all that gone on open world games. I like my games to have a clearly defined end point I can aim for and reach. I am very comfortable with the modern trend towards short single player campaigns that can be completed in a dozen hours or so. I don't remember too many details of my X2 experience but I do remember that one of the reasons I abandoned the game was the realisation that it would take me hundreds of hours to do anything more than scratch the surface of the game. I have put that sort of time into mmorpgs in the past but the social side of an  mmorpgs makes it seem less a waste of time. 

So I am still hesitant about X. The alternative is to go even further back in time to the legendary Freespace 2.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ebook Sales explosive Growth

There is a great graph in this article from Paid Content showing how ebook sales are on an exponential growth path. The US is ahead of the field but  Europe and the rest of the world are sure to follow.

Having recently been won over to ebooks myself this comes as no surprise to me but speaking as a consumer I remain convinced that two things have yet to happen for the market to really mature:

1. The ebook market needs standardisation. The fragmentation of the market into incompatible formats and incompatible readers has to go.


2. The pricing of ebooks has to get realistic. The production and distribution costs of ebooks are only a fraction of that of a paper book. Pass these savings onto the customer please.

These two issues are not unconnected. Holding onto incompatible proprietary formats allows publishers and booksellers to enjoy a price premium. I suspect that competition will eventually force publishers and booksellers to embrace the new economic reality. Smart phones and tablet computers are a major stepping stone here. In the past if you bought a Kindle or a Nook your were tied to that bookstore. If you read on a tablet computer or smartphone you can install the Kindle app and the Nook app and the Kobo app and a range of other book readers. It is still a pain in the neck to have to juggle all those formats but at least it introduces some competition.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Just to mark the day I spotted Duke Nukem Forever actually for Sale

Its just a pre-order but it has a release date: 9 June 2011.

I won't actually believe it until I play it and even then I may not really believe it.

By the way I reckon Duke 3D still retains the crown for best weapons ever in an FPS from Duke's boot to the devastator every one of them was a classic.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Freelancer - An old Classic Revisited

A 2003 classic that is still great.

Freelancer was released eight years ago and the box touts compatibility with Windows 98, Me and XP. I was not overly optimistic then that my unpatched version 1.0 disk would install and run on a 2011 computer running Windows 7 but it did. In fact it ran flawlessly from start to finish of the single player campaign. Apparently there is a 1.1 patch out there somewhere  but all it does is address multi player server issues.

That is a very impressive level of stability and polish for a PC game and it makes it somewhat mind boggling that the main complaint about Freelancer when it was first released was that the game was unfinished. It is a complaint that regularly cropped up in forum posts about the game. It is the reason why some reviewers chose to punish the game with middle of the road reviews whilee others lauded its greatness.

 I find this bizarre because replaying the game with a 2011 viewpoint it doesn't feel unfinished at all. The problem is that back in 2003 Freelancer was a victim of its own hype. Chris Roberts and Digital Anvil talked up a dynamic world but they delivered a static one. They promised EVE online but they  once technical and financial realities (including a take over by Microsoft) sunk in they actually delivered something closer to Grand Theft Auto in Space any many enthusiasts never forgave them for it.

Happily looking back from a 2011 perspective you can forget all of that and just enjoy a really really great game. The single player campaign is tightly focussed exciting and extremely well scripted. The controls are the best I have ever seen in a space game, simple and intuitive. The lack of a difficulty slider is a shame because the combat is fast and furious and gamers used to 2011 default difficulty settings may find it frustrating. Veterans can always up the challenge by adopting self imposed restrictions like this gentleman who completed the full combat heavy campaign in a basic freighter which is every bit as difficult as it sounds.

Quite apart from the space trading game there is a fully fledged space trading simulator there with trading, mining and piracy all included. The on rails nature of the story line only allows you to experience a taste of this (it is hard to be a trader when you are being hunted by almost every faction in space) but once you complete the main campaign you can keep playing in the open world for as long as you like. Freelancer also features a multi player mode that I have never tried but given that there is still an active community playing the game and its mods I assume that too was a success.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

Angry Birds Knocked Off Their Perch by Bubble Blast 2

Edit: Bit slow this morning. My Original title said "Angry Birds Dethroned"

Angry Birds has sat at the top of the Android game charts (and Iphone too I believe) for as long as I can recall so it is almost a relief to see it displaced, on Android at any rate from the number 1 spot. Today there are two free games ahead of it on the Android Market: Live Holdem Poker and Bubble Blast 2.

(I note from the numbers that Angry Birds still has a much greater number of installs than either of those games so perhaps the ranking is based only on recent downloads.) 

Not being a poker player I cannot comment on Live Holdem but Bubble Blast 2 certainly gets my seal of approval.  It is a simple addictive game beautifully presented. You start with a screen full of bubbles of various colours. Each time a bubble is touched it advances through a sequence from blue to yellow to green to red. The red bubbles burst when touched and fire missiles out in four directions touching new bubbles and if you are lucky triggering a chain reaction which will clear the screen. You are only allowed a limited number of touches in order to try and clear the screen. This task is trivially easy at first but presents a nice challenge once you advance a bit. The difficulty level is never intimidating though and if all else fails random bubble popping and a bit of luck will eventually get you through where planning fails.


To my mind the game-play is better than Angry Birds because touching the same bubbles produces the same outcome every time allowing you to solve the puzzle by trial and error or by careful planning. Making the same shot repeatedly in Angry Birds is almost an impossibility so luck plays a much greater role in the game.

Lovely sound and graphic effects really add to the game and when you do pull off a screen clearing cascade to be greeted with a brief round of applause you can't help but feel chuffed.  This is a casual game that achieves Pop Cap levels of polish and that is no mean praise. My recommendation of Bubble Blast 2 is heartily endorsed by my wife who is more of an expert on casual games than I am. She plays it on her Iphone where it is also available for free.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"I lust my step-brother who is also a vampire, oh did I mention I'm a wolf?"

Heartfelt apologies for blatantly plagiarising my title from an insightful piece by an anonymous member of the Wattpad community.

Wattpad is an online community for authors and reader to share books.It is a kind of Youtube for books. If like me you just stumble across it on the internet while looking for some e-reading material you might be forgiven for assuming you have stumbled into the worlds largest selection of teen vampire novels. It seems that Wattpad has had some success among female readers of a particular age. Neverthless if you ignore the preponderance of werewolves and doomed romance and think about Wattpad for a minute, you have to admit it just might be the future of creative writing.

For some time now I have been wondering about the future of books and publishing. I am a relatively recent convert to electronic book reading but my brief foray into the world of e-books and e-books sellers has convinced me that none of the current models is sustainable in the long run. The ebook market is very fragmented at the moment with a confusing variety of formats and a lack of sensible pricing.

Some publishers and booksellers seem hesitant to even admit they are engaging in the e-book business. Case in point take Waterstones: They have a huge catalogue of ebooks available in epub format but their mobile bookstore app (the app that folks might run on the very devices they use to read ebooks) doesn't list any of them. Others are more enthusiastic. Barnes and Noble and Kobo are pushing ebooks very hard, Apple appears to be doing quite well with its Ibooks, and of course Amazon appears to have achieved amazing success with the Kindle. Nevertheless I am not convinced that any of these efforts are really all that significant in the long run. Locking customers into proprietary formats and expecting them to pay close to physical book prices for an ebook just doesn't make sense to me.

One thing I quickly realised about ebooks is that the story is more important than the device you read it upon. There is a minimum standard required for the experience to be acceptable but after that the reading device becomes irrelevant. Current day readers are just about reaching that standard but in the near future there will be a wide range of devices which are more than good enough. This choice of devices will leave readers free to choose for themselves and rob publishers and booksellers of the monopoly control over distribution of books they once enjoyed. Authors will still need ways to get their books to as wide an audience as possible. Readers will still need fast reliable means of selecting books that they enjoy reading. Services like Wattpad could be one answer to these needs.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

I want to watch it now

We decided to watch the Harry Potter movies together as a family starting with "The Philosopher's Stone". The only problem is it was a Sunday evening and my wife and I had shared a bottle of wine and and were in no position to drive to a store that might have it. A couple of phone calls to neighbours within walking distance turned up every episode other than the one we wanted to watch.

"Can we download it?" I wondered. I have become so used to the instant gratification of digital game downloads that I assumed that the world of digital movies must have moved in the same direction. Although I am not really a film and TV buff I have noticed references to Netflix and LOVEFiLM in some of the blogs I read so I assumed that a movie would be similarly available on line.

Sadly neither Netflix nor LOVEFiLM would take my money. It turns out that not only are there far fewer legal movie downloading services than there are game download services but the few that there are adhere to rigid geographical borders. Indeed the only company I could find who wanted to legally sell me the film online was Apple through their Itunes service. Further kudos to Apple for offering a rental price as well as a purchase price. Unfortunately the machine that Itunes is installed on is not a machine which can easily be hooked up to a TV and a bit of googling convinced me that Apple's rigid drm enforcement would not allow me to easily transfer the movie from one PC to another so my attempts to legally download the movie ended in failure which surprised me somewhat.

Of course my various searches also turned up a large number of links to sites of considerably more dubious provenance. Many of these sites it seems were willing to let me watch the movie instantly sometimes freely sometimes after payment. I was offered the choice of dowloading the movie directly, torrenting it or streaming it. I have a vague notion that streaming is somewhat less illegal than direct downloading which in turn is somewhat less illegal than torrenting but needless to say none of these "alternative" sources felt particularly safe to use and many of them appeared to have very dodgy advertising policies. The  prospect of your children's viewing being interrupted by advertisements for prostitutes (who "just happen" to live in your home town) is rather unsettling.

Did I succumb to the dark side and obtain the movie from one of those dubious sources? I think I will leave that question for you to wonder about.

I will say we bought  a full Harry Potter box set the following morning.