Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Skyrim Wrapup

I bit the bullet and finished the main quest line of Skyrim last night. Apart from a rather more epic than usual quest finale there is no obvious indication that I have finished the game. My quest log is still full and there are plenty of adventures still to be had in the world. My level 21 character is also far from complete with plenty of skills and abilities still to unlock. Nevertheless I think I will take a break from the game now. I have 86 hours played since starting the game on Christmas day and I think it is time to move on. For the record here are some random thoughts as I prepare to put it aside:

1. The world of Skyrim is utterly stunning both in towns and in the countryside. If you never do any quests just spend some time getting lost in the wonderful scenery.

2. The main quest line is suitably epic and entertaining. How could anything with Dragons in not be? Of course there are also hundred of side quests raiding from trivial tasks to epic saga's in their own right.  My gut feeling is that the side quests are not as imaginative as those in Oblivion however.

3. In my opinion Bethseda has finally fixed the levelling system that was so broken in both Morrowind and Oblivion. I didn't spend much time thinking about the leveling system in fact. It just seems to work. You get better at stuff by doing it and there are no hidden meta-game mechanics to worry about.

4. I played as a pure Mage which work fine and got me through the game without many problems. I was a bit disappointed in the magic system overall though. Two spells effectively got me all the way through the game: the low level destruction spell Firebolt and the low level Healing spell. Perhaps I could have been more creative in my use of magic but nothing else seemed to match the effectiveness of these bankers particularly given the much higher magicka requirements of stronger spells.

5. The addition of followers to the game is a great idea both in terms of providing additional tactical options and in terms of adding colour to the game. I stuck with Lydia for most of the game. Given that I refused to wear armour on my mage character it was nice to have a meat shield on which to hang the assorted metalware I picked up along the way.  Of course all the usual companion nuisances like crazy pathing and doorway blocking also applied.

6. The interface of the game on PC has come in for some criticism for not making good use of mouse and keyboard. It didn't cause me any real problems but I can see how it would have been nicer to drag inventory around with a mouse for example than clicking "R".

7. The one interface feature that did disappoint me was the quest log.  It does the job of highlighting quest objectives and showing them on the map but it is missing vital options.You cannot ever abandon a quest for example and there is no way to filter the quests. Even more disappointing is the minimalist quest descriptions it provides. In many cases there isn't even enough of an explanation to remind you what the quest is all about. Given the effort put into voice acting they surely could have afforded a few writers to pad out the quest text.

8. Finally the thorny question: Is it better than Morrowind or Oblivion? Overall I would say yes, the areas it has improved (in particular the wonderful open world and the fixed levelling system) outweigh the areas it has fallen back. It doesn't beat those games in every respect though. Magic was better in Oblivion and much better (with more complex abilities) in Morrowind. Oblivion also had many sublime side quests that I haven't seen equaled in Skyrim (Haunted house, Secretive Village, Naked Dinner party,  Painting come to life etc).


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gaming Update: Its All Skyrim and now STO

Placeholder post really to record my current games. I have spent an inordinate amount of time playing Skyrim. For some reason game isn't really conducive to blog posts but it is probably my favourite Elder Scrolls game to date. For some reason I seem to be progressing very slowly. More than 70 hours played and I am only level 18 and still not finished the main questline.

On a whim I downloaded and installed the newly free to played Star Trek Online. Actually it wasn't a whim it was a direct response to an unsolicited email invite from Perfect World Entertainment. It seems I have a Perfect World account as a result of one of the Steam Challenges I entertained myself with over Christmas. All well and good except that my Star Trek online account is now tied to a throw away Perfect World account with a silly name.

Anyway I have only played a couple of hours of the game so I still haven't got a clue about what is going on. I did manage to kill a few Borg and blow up some of their cubes though. A couple of random observtaions from clueless me:

- A couple of hours into the game and I haven't found the item shop yet. Where are all the flashing neon signs saying "Spend Money Now"?

- Did I really just read that you cannot get hurt at all on normal mode missions? Surely that can't be right?  I know the current trend is to cater towards casual players but if that means what I think it means it sounds a bit extreme.

One point worth noting is that I have been quite busy in the real world these last few weeks but that hasn't stopped me spending a lot of time gaming. When I am busy I tend to go into Zombie mode: work, game, sleep. Normal social interactions take a back seat because I really don't have the energy. This does influence the type of game I play however. Challenging strategy games are out because I am too tired for them. Multiplayer shooters are also out for the same reason. RPGs work well because I can play at my own pace and they provide an ideal dose of wind down escapism.




Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Goggle's lack of joined up thinking strikes again. Android Blogger Fail.

I use Google's blogger platform for this blog and I have a Samsung Galaxy phone running the Google Android operating system. One might be inclined to assume therefore that posting to my blog from my phone would be well supported. One would be wrong. Some months bag Google updated the blogger posting interface and I haven't been able to get it to work properly on my phone since.

Fist attempt: Using my preferred Opera mobile browser on the phone. It really is a terrific mobile browser and seems to work well with every website. Except for Blogger. I can read posts well enough but I cannot create new posts. I get a message saying "This browser is no longer supported by Blogger".

Second attempt: Using the default Browser built into Android (Gingerbread edition). Surely Google's own Android browser will do the trick? Sadly no. I can get the page for creating a new post but it refuses to activate the text entry box and give me a keyboard.


Third Attempt: There's an app for that. Well of course there is. There is an app for everything these days. I downloaded the official Blogger app from the Android market. I was a bit disappointing that it doesn't appear to facilitate reading and writing comments but at least I can finally create and edit posts. At first I was satisfied. Then I noticed that I was experiencing problems with low battery life and phone slowdowns.  Looking at running processes I was surprised to see that the official Blogger app has a persistent process that runs constantly on the phone regardless of whether you are using the app or not. When I kill the process it re-appears so the only way to get rid of it is to uninstall the app. Most suspiciously my phone runs better (better battery and fewer slowdowns) when the app is not installed.


Final option: There are a number of third party blogger apps available on the market. I haven't tried any of these yet because I am worried about handing over my user name and password to a third party app. Since I have yet to find a satisfactory solution for posting to my blog from my phone I will probably have to look for a trustworthy one and try it.



My favourite thing in Skyrim is ...

... simply walking peacefully through the country side. Not only is the scenery drop dead gorgeous but the place feels alive with insects, birds and forest animals. I love that there is never just one way to get from A to B, there is always a multitude of high roads,  byroads and twisty paths to choose from.

I am as lazy as the next gamer and I use instant travel extensively when I am pursuing quest objectives but my heart lifts whenever I realise that I am going somewhere I have not been to before and must therefore walk through as yet unexplored territory to get there.

Pro Tip #1: Ditch the horse. Exploring is much easier on foot and you feel more in touch with the country side. I am not even convinced that Skyrim horse 's are faster than travelling on foot.

Pro Tip #2: Constantly stopping to slaughter the local wildlife seems out of place on an idyllic country walk so I recommend the shout "Kynes Peace". It calms wolves, bears and other animals so you can just walk by unmolested. Doesn't seem to work on Dragons unfortunately.

Pro Tip #3: The biggest problem with trying to get anywhere in Skyrim is the multitude of ancient tombs, bandit camps and other places of interest along the way that are sure to tempt you to stray from your intended path. While dunegoneering is an enjoyable part of the game it breaks the immersion of a country side stroll. I recommend going just close enough to get the map location and then continuing on your way. You can come back easily with fast travel when you are in a more bloodthirsty mood.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Netflix Ireland, The facebook mistake

Netflix appears to have made an error with facebook integration that has dissuaded some Irish people from trying out the service. I experienced it myself, I read others complaining about it in forum posts and during feedback to a Reed Hastings interview on Irish radio this morning.

You can sign up for a Netbook free trial using Facebook or just just using an email address. The sign in page does not appear to give you a choice however - you just get offered one or the other leading many to assume that you have to use Facebook to access Netflix. Some may enjoy the social networking aspect of Facebook integration but others are put off by it and have been dissuaded from trying Netflix because they do not appear to have a choice.

Worse still is that the algorithm for offering facebook or email seems to be borked.  I assume it uses cookies to decide whether or not you are a Facebook user but something isn't working correctly. I don't use Facebook but on my computer my only choice was Facebook login. My wife uses Facebook but on her computer the only choice was email login.

Netflix comes to Ireland, First Impressions

I signed up for Netflix's just launched video UK and Ireland video streaming service last night. Bullet point first impressions follow:

1. The sign up process is very slick and almost frictionless (the one difficulty being a face book tie in - more later). I got  a 30 day free trial and they assure me I can cancel at any time without obligation so I was comfortable enough giving them my credit card details. 

2. Also impressive was the range of options for viewing. I tried the PC and the Wii. Both were very easy to set-up and easy to use. Other options included Xbox, PS3, Iphone/pad , Android phone/pad.

3. Picture quality on the Wii at 460p using composite cables was better than I expected and much more convenient than connecting a laptop to the TV. 

3. The service was very easy to use on both PC and Wii. You can browse under a relatively small number of categories or you can search alphabetically. This simplicity makes the system easy to use but it could be a limitation if the number of videos available was greater.

4. The price of €6.99 /month for unlimited streaming is very attractive. Consider that conventional cable/satellite TVpackages cost  €25/month upwards and DVD rentals cost several euros per night.

5. On the downside the selection of films and TV shows is pretty poor. There are only about 70 titles on offer s in each category most of which are old and many of which I have never heard of. The headline offerings that they are using to push the service include small number of popular TV shows including Braking Bad, Prison Break and Heroes. Netflix have promised to improve the selection as subscriber numbers rise but the licensing situation in Europe is messy. The rights to the best shows and films are owned by Satellite and Terrestrial broadcasters who have no interest in promoting streaming.

6. I am surprised that there is no pay per view element. I would have though that offering pay per view for the latest shows and films would be a natural extension of Netflix's service.  I heard a radio interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings this morning and he went so far as to recommend Itunes for the latest shows. If Netflix was intending to offer premium content later then he would hardly point customers to a competitor.

6. Given the ability to view shows on the kid's Wii. I was pleased to see a parental controls option where I can block adult content but I couldn't find any way to adjust this setting from the Wii itself. This means that when my wife and I want to watch an adult show we need to log in to a computer before and after to adjust permissions.






Monday, January 09, 2012

Skyrim Thoughts

I have been playing Skyrim on and off since Santa Claus provided a copy on Christmas day.  In previous Elder Scrolls games I always got sucked into the meta game and ended doing silly things to try out all the content and min max my character. This time around I am sticking to a role playing approach, only doing things which feel appropriate for my character. It means that this character will miss whole swathes of content but it still makes the playthrough more enjoyable. It helps of course that the world of Skyrim is stunningly beautiful and it is a perfect game to get lost in.

In terms of the changes to game mechanics I like the simplified levelling system. The only thing I really don't like is the ugly and useless quest journal. Morrowind's quest journal may have been unhelpful but at least it was pretty. I have have had to resort to online wikis to help me remember what various people said to me in relation to the many many miscellaneous quests so badly described in my journal.

For reference my character is a Nord Mage. Its a somewhat accidental choice because Nords generally hate magic and start with depressed magical skills but I reckon there are a few rebels in every society. In role playing spirit I do not use any weapons nor do I wear any armour. The game is still pretty easy except for occasional bosses and even then I can generally get through by running around kiting the boss while waiting for my magicka to recharge.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Do you have an obsolescence plan for PC games?

I don't just play games, I also collect them. Even though the advent of digital distribution has removed the tactile element of owning a shelf full of games I still like having a large collection that I can browse through. Regularly enough I will dig out an old classic to play or replay.  Given the rapid time to obsolescence of just about any piece of technology these days it is entirely remarkable just how PC games have withstood the march of technology. Thank to the enduring legacy of the (30 years old now) IBM Pc supported by the trojan work of the emulation community I am pretty confident that I could get any of my old games to play on my current up to date PC if I really wanted. I even have an old floppy disk drive in an attic just in case.

This unusually fortunate circumstance may not persist forever though. Technology will probably move on eventually to devices that are sufficiently different in form that even emulation is no longer feasible. Many are now predicting that mobile tablet computers will replace desktops and that closed architectures will prevail over the open general purpose architecture of current desktop PCs. Emulation may no longer be possible on these devices.

When such a change threatens the future viability of any media format you need to think about whether or not you want to preserve the ability to read and use the older format. Perhaps you are happy to let the collection go or perhaps you want to preserve the means of using it in the future. Not being into music I never bothered to rescue LP's or cassette tapes. When DVDs replaced VHS I was happy to let most of my old watched movies go but we took steps to convert our wedding video. We also converted our old 8mm family videos to DVD.

What then is the plan for maintaining the life of PC games? I guess my current plan is to keep my last PC in an attic somewhere along with the collection of game disks. In the dying days of the PC  I might even take the time to hunt down the patches required to activate offline versions of digital games and store working copies of as many of them as I can on a big hard disk.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Belarus Bans Foreign Websites ???

It seems that Belarussian citizens are to be protected from the evils of foreign websites. Clearly President Lukashenko hasn't been following my advice for despots.

Look what we made

We dug out an old K'NEX construction set that my wife bought me for Christmas seventeen years ago and made the Big Ball Factory as a family. My 10 year old daughter must take the bulk of the credit but we are all rather proud of our contributions.

Of course it is a rule of the internet that whenever you feel a little bit proud of something there is always someone out there who will make your efforts feel completely inadequate: http://youtu.be/-vX7a15J7z4